Cherokee Language Classes: Get to know your instructor

Former Reporter &
Reporter – @cp_sguthrie
03/07/2018 08:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee language instructor Rufus King speaks to his class at the Lost City Community Building in this 2017 photo. King, along with several other Cherokee instructors, began their 10-week classes at the end of February and beginning of March. STACIE BOSTON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee language instructor Helena McCoy shows her students how to write “fry bread” in the Cherokee syllabary and phonetically while teaching at the Brushy Community Building. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHELQUAH – Community classes have started for those interested in learning how to read, write and speak the Cherokee language.

The free classes take place every spring and fall for 10 weeks and are part of the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Program. Its goal is to perpetuate the language “in all walks of life ranging from day to day conversation, ceremonially, as well as in online arenas such as social media.”
Students learn from both first- and second-language speakers in communities within the tribe’s jurisdiction.

The Cherokee Phoenix recently spoke with several instructors to highlight their Cherokee backgrounds and discuss what students can expect in their classes.

Are you a native Cherokee speaker? If not, when did you start learning the language?

Rufus King:I was born and raised in a Cherokee language-speaking home. That was all I could speak when I was a kid. When they sent me to school, that’s all I knew was Cherokee, didn’t know a word of English.

Helena McCoy: Cherokee is my first language. That’s why it’s so important for me that everybody else hears it.

Lawrence Panther: Yes, Cherokee is my first language. I began to learn English when I started school at 6 years old.

Sandra Turner: Yes, Cherokee was my first language.

Lois Deason: Cherokee was my first language.

When did you become a certified language instructor and why?

King: I was certified to teach Cherokee language in 2001, I think it was. So that makes me about 16 years that I’ve been doing this all together. Different places around Jay mostly and Grove, but since we moved down here (Lost City) we picked it up over here now. I kind of feel home when I get here, and I think everybody else feels that way.

McCoy: I went to the Cherokee Immersion (Charter School) and taught there for six and a half years. And then these classes came up, (CN Language Program Manager) Roy (Boney) I think it was, asked if I wanted to teach these adult classes and I said, ‘I’ll try it.’ It’s fun. We really have fun.

Panther: I taught myself to read and write. Afterwards, I took the Cherokee language test and became a certified Cherokee language teacher in 2012.

Turner: I became an instructor about 12 years ago and why – I told myself if I speak the language I should know how to read and write the language. So I took a class at the old jailhouse (in Tahlequah) with Anna Sixkiller as my instructor.

Deason:I got my certification December 2016.

Why are these classes important to teach in our Cherokee communities?

King: Preserving our language is one thing because we are losing it, some of them say. There’s not that many speakers anymore here in Cherokee Nation. Last year they gave us an estimate. I thought about that myself trying to start from the north end and try to find out about how many fluent speakers that I could find. That would give me how many fluent speakers, the ones that you can talk to all day long. I think that’s why we need to preserve it.

McCoy: Well like everybody says, it’s dying and it really is. I like teaching it. I think it’s important for people to hear it and understand it from a fluent speaker to teach them the correct sounds.

Panther: Not only is our language (speaking) in dire need of revitalization, the written language needs to be addressed just as well.

Turner: It is important to provide this service to the community members that want to learn the Cherokee language even if they learn very basic words using the (Cherokee) syllabary.

Deason: Most of them will tell you that they have no one to teach them. So that’s why I decided to teach the Cherokee language.

For those interested in taking your class, what can they expect to learn?

King: I teach them the sounds of the syllabary, that is the most important too. To make them sound like they are supposed to be because if you don’t sound them out like the way they supposed to be, you’re words are not going to come out right, and nobody’s going to know what you’re saying.

McCoy: I try to teach what they want to learn, that way they’ll be more interested in coming back. Just whatever they want to do, like breakfast foods or names for family. Come out one day and sit in. We won’t make you participate, but the only way you’re going to learn is by saying it (in Cherokee), so I just tell them to come on out.

Panther: I will advocate the syllabary writing for my Cherokee classes. The syllabary chart discourages many learners and speakers. I will have hands-on activities including kinesthetic and tactile, auditory, visual and lecture analytically about the syllabary chart. This will help them utilize the knowledge of the syllabary. There are a lot of speakers who do not know how to read and write. I feel the need to reach out to them, including learners as well. It’s very important the teacher is adamant when it comes to teaching.

Turner: So many people have seen the Cherokee syllabary but have never learned how to read the syllables. I use the format of teaching “What, Where, When, Why, Who and How.” The first night of class when I review the vowel sounds participants are amazed of making a full sentence using “??.” They cannot believe these two syllables make up the sentence, “a-i” which means “he or she is walking.” I also ask the participants if there are certain words they would really like to learn, and I also use their Cherokee names if they have one, and if not I will give them one to use in class or I will ask them to ask an elder if they do have a Cherokee name.

Deason: They will learn about the syllabary chart to learn how to pronounce them. So they can learn how to pronounce Cherokee words a lot better. They would learn how to count in Cherokee, days of the week things like that, just basic things to start off with.

For more information, call 918-453-5487.

Click hereto read the Cherokee language class schedule.


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