OPINION: Tribe makes historic $16M language investment
Recently, we announced a historic $16 million investment to expand Cherokee Nation’s language initiatives. It is the largest infusion of resources in the history of the Cherokee Nation to preserve and revitalize the Cherokee language. Sadly, our language has reached such a critical point that we must make this kind of investment a priority in order to keep it alive.
Right now, there are only an estimated 2,000 first-language Cherokee speakers left. We recently hosted a gathering of Cherokee speakers in Tahlequah, in conjunction with the United Nation’s initiative to preserve indigenous languages worldwide. It marked the largest gathering of fluent Cherokee speakers in more than a century.
This language investment is part of the new Durbin Feeling Cherokee Language Preservation Act, and the language center it establishes will honor him in perpetuity. Durbin Feeling is a master Cherokee linguist who has single-handedly advanced our language more than anyone since Sequoyah himself. Durbin has made the Cherokee language his life’s work, devoting his time, energy and knowledge to the continuation of our spoken and written language. He has authored numerous books on the subject, including the most comprehensive Cherokee dictionary available, has developed digital syllabaries and taught countless community language courses. For his lifetime body of work with our language, he was named a Cherokee National Treasure in 2011.
For the first time, under this act, all of our language programs – the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, the translation department and the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program – will share common space at the Durbin Feeling Language Center. The center will be located just up the hill from our Tribal Complex, in the former home of Cherokee Casino Tahlequah, which has been transitioned from Cherokee Nation Businesses to our tribal government. After we execute a planned $5 million expansion and modernization of the property, we have pledged another $1.5 million per year for the next five years for language programs for children and adults.
CLMAP is an adult immersion program that successfully pairs novice language learners with master-level fluent Cherokee speakers 40 hours per week. Under this plan, the program will quadruple in size, allowing many more Cherokees the opportunity to participate. We have already seen the endeavor produce new Cherokee speakers and know that it is a roadmap to successful language revitalization for adults.
A generation or two ago, our people learned Cherokee at home through their elders and other family members. They were brought up learning Cherokee. Times have changed greatly, and our reality is quite different today in 2019.
It’s important to me for our language to thrive, so that long after I am gone, the next generations in my family and yours will still be able to walk into a room and hear Cherokee spoken. Our language is the glue that holds our culture together. It creates a feeling of unity and hope among our people. Other tribes have already lost their living speakers. If we do not take action today, this could happen to us as well. As Cherokees, none of us want that.
If our language disappears, future generations of CN citizens will not care how big our hospitals were. They will not care how impressive our casinos were and may not even care who the chief was. What they will care about, though, is why the CN did not do more to save the Cherokee language.
This is something we cannot falter on; our language is intertwined with our identity as a people. We must continue to act boldly and quickly to preserve the Cherokee language before it is too late.