20-plus Cherokee speakers lost to COVID-19
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation has lost more than 20 fluent speakers to COVID-19, a toll that’s pushing the annual death rate higher than anticipated as 2020 began.
“Man, it’s just devastating to see what’s happening to our speaker population right now,” said Howard Paden, the CN’s language department executive director. “I would suspect that if it wasn’t for COVID, we would have been way below 100 (total speaker deaths) this year where last year we were around 100 to 110.”
The total number of speaker deaths so far this year is at least 112, said Paden.
“About 25 of them are COVID-related that I know of,” he said. “I assume that there’s a higher number than what I have because some of them, I just don’t know if it’s COVID or not, but I know that they’ve passed.”
Paden said he expects that by the end of the year, the CN will have lost between 125-130 of its speakers. Fifteen died in November alone, he said, with a median age of 73.
“Sadly, we know that Cherokee Nation loses more than a hundred Cherokee speakers per year,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement posted to Facebook, “and with the current global pandemic in our midst, our elder speakers and our language have been even more at risk.”
There are an estimated 2,000 Cherokee language speakers. Some new Cherokee speakers are trained via the CN’s Cherokee Language Master-Apprentice Program, which was expanded under Hoskin’s watch.
“Since Chief Hoskin came in, we’ve quadrupled the master-apprentice,” Paden said. “So we went from graduating four to next year we’ll be graduating 16 because that master-apprentice takes two years to go through.”
Interest in the language program remains high, Paden added.
“It’s not uncommon to have 70 or 80 applications at a time,” he said. “The thing is, though, the level of speaker that’s being built versus the level that we’re losing is two separate things. You have a person that we’re losing that’s in a superior level and we’re building an intermediate or advanced speaker. You still have quite a bit of work to go.”
The expanded language program is one aspect of the Durbin Feeling Preservation Act passed by the Tribal Council in 2019. The act promises to invest $16 million into the Cherokee language, $5 million of which is earmarked for a new language hub called the Durbin Feeling Language Center.
The language center, named in honor of the late first-language speaker, will be located at the former Cherokee Casino-Tahlequah building near the Tribal Complex. Five homes for Cherokee speakers will be built near the language center, according to the tribe.