Cherokee language advocate makes ‘40 Under 40’ list
Kristen Thomas with the Cherokee Nation’s Language Master Apprentice Program is one of Oklahoma Magazine’s 2020 “40 Under 40” honorees for 2020. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – A Cherokee Nation citizen, employee and language mentor holds a spot on Oklahoma Magazine’s 2020 “40 Under 40” list, which shines a spotlight on influential young leaders.
Kristen Thomas, 35, of Tahlequah, is an instructional design specialist invested in the CN’s Language Master Apprentice Program.
“It’s estimated that every two weeks, a language dies,” she said. “There are roughly 2,000 native speakers of the Cherokee language. Without significant intervention, the Cherokee language could face extinction in less than 40 years. The Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program is working to turn that around.”
The tribe’s two-year, adult language program is all about immersion in hopes of creating proficient speakers and language teachers. The novice learners are paired with master-level, fluent Cherokee speakers.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Cherokee language programs,” Thomas said. “There have been many memorable days throughout my career, from seeing the first kindergarten graduation of the Cherokee Immersion (Charter) School to seeing some of those young children make full circle back into language work as adults.”
According to Oklahoma Magazine, the “40 Under 40” honorees possess “a collective willingness to go the extra mile.”
“Influential young leaders drive the state forward, and the 40 professionals cataloged here exemplify the best of what Oklahoma has to offer,” the magazine states in its “40 Under 40” introduction. “Through a graceful balancing act of hard work, pioneering and volunteerism, those honored set precedents for aspiring leaders around the state. By putting in time and effort to help others in addition to their professional duties, they have become leaders in many fields, from engineering and medicine to art and law.”
Thomas grew up in Lyons Switch, an Adair County community, and attended Tahlequah Public Schools. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Cherokee Cultural Studies at Northeastern State University, and later a master’s degree in higher educational leadership also at NSU.
“During my time with the Cherokee Language Degree Program at NSU, I was never more proud to see Cherokee teacher candidates graduate and begin working as Cherokee language teachers,” Thomas said. “Last fall, I helped organize the first celebration of Cherokee speakers. Three tribes of Cherokee speakers were represented, and we believe it to be the largest gathering of Cherokee speakers since Oklahoma’s statehood with more than 600 Cherokee speakers in attendance.”
She added that benefits of fully restoring the Cherokee language reach “beyond individuals to our communities, our natural resources and our future.”
“As Cherokee people, our core values and worldviews are carried in the language,” Thomas said. “From family connections to social protocols, philosophies and how to care for our land and water, it’s all embedded in the language.”
Thomas, a former Miss Cherokee, is also a volunteer coordinator with the tribe’s ambassador pageants.
“At the age of 5, I was Little Miss Cherokee, and that is when I set my sights on the title of Miss Cherokee,” she said. “That youth leadership program set me on a trajectory of service to the Cherokee people.”
She was Miss Cherokee 2002, the same year she began working as a cultural specialist for the CN’s Cultural Resource Center.
“That’s where I was introduced to the tribe’s language programs and began working with the Cherokee Language Immersion School shortly thereafter,” she said.
Thomas went on to work with NSU’s Cherokee language degree program, then the tribe’s master/apprentice program.
“Along the way, I also started volunteering to help with Junior Miss Cherokee and Little Cherokee Ambassador program,” she said. “Now, I have the pleasure of volunteering with the same programs that placed me on my path today. I am the volunteer coordinator for the Little Cherokee Ambassador program and serve on the Junior Miss and Miss Cherokee committees.”
Thomas and her husband, Doug, have two children. She said she enjoys “the art of Cherokee basketry,” and recently started learning art forms such as shell work and loom weaving.