Former immersion school students testifies to Senate committee
Lauren Hummingbird spoke at a hearing on “Examining Efforts to Maintain and Revitalize Native Languages for Future Generations.”
WASHINGTON – Former Cherokee Immersion Charter School student Lauren Hummingbird delivered testimony on Aug. 22 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Hummingbird spoke during the committee’s oversight hearing on “Examining Efforts to Maintain and Revitalize Native Languages for Future Generations.” She stressed the importance of language in relation to tribal identity, preservation efforts and the role the Cherokee Nation’s immersion school has in growing the tribe’s language speakers.
Hummingbird’s full testimony is as follows:
“Chairman (John) Hoeven, Vice Chairman (Tom) Udall, and members of the committee: Osiyo, nigada.
“I am Lauren Hummingbird, Cherokee Nation citizen, and a graduate of the Cherokee immersion school, Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi, and Sequoyah High School, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Thank you for the opportunity to share my testimony about Revitalizing Native Languages for Future Generations.
“Preserving the Cherokee language is preserving our Cherokee identity. The heritage and traditions of our tribe are rooted in our language. Our language allows us to pass along traditional Cherokee knowledge and values to our children and grandchildren.
“In 2003, the Cherokee Nation started the Cherokee immersion school, Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi, and at age 3, I was one of the first Immersion students. I have many fond memories of the school, which I consider less of school and more of a second home. At the immersion school, my teachers became more than instructors, they were and remain, mother and father figures in my life. Most importantly, the elder speakers in the immersion school became my extended grandparents, providing compassion, encouragement and emotional support.
“Each of the teachers and staff became an important part of my life and helped shape who I am today.
“I was guided by their teachings and I recently graduated from high school at the top of my class. I believe that my success comes from my history, the support of my family, and knowledge of my Cherokee language and culture.
““???? ???? ??? ????? ?????? ??? ????????. ??? ???????? ???????? ?? ???? ??? ??. Which means, ‘It is hard for a Native American to talk about just their language. That is because a Native’s language is so much more than just their language.’
““??? ?????????? ?????. ??? ?? ?????????? ?????. Which means, ‘It is the foundation of their culture. It is the foundation of my culture.’ Native languages, including Cherokee, have faced many adversities over the years.
“Our ancestors were removed from our homelands in the southeast United States on the Trail of Tears.
“Not only did we lose precious family members on the Trail, we also lost a connection with plants, animals, culture and language in our homelands. Our bond was with the land, and we lived together in that ecosystem. Our language is woven into the culture, just as river cane is woven into a basket.
“Likewise, after removal to Indian Territory, our ancestors were placed in boarding schools to be ‘normalized’. They were punished for practicing our traditions and speaking the language. That pain has been passed down through generations, and the language was suppressed.
“Today, the Cherokee Nation has 360,000 citizens, but has only 1,200 fluent speakers left. Their average age is 65. Language preservationists at Cherokee Nation indicate that we lose 12 Cherokee speakers each month. History shows that without intervention, the historic oppression of the Native languages means the loss of identity and extinction of culture.
“I commend the leaders of the Cherokee Nation. After seeing the continued decline of Cherokee speakers, the government took the initiative to develop the immersion school. The Cherokee immersion school is the first and only school to be chartered by a tribal government in Oklahoma. This means students follow the same state learning objectives as other students in public schools districts, with the curriculum being translated to Cherokee.
“In the last academic school year, there were 135 Cherokee students enrolled in pre-school through the eighth grade. Today, the Cherokee Nation government contributes more than $2.3 million dollars annually to the school’s overall budget of $2.7 million.
“The Cherokee Nation has also developed and funded the Master/Apprentice Program to provide language bridges between generations of speakers. Without the dedicated support of our tribal government and our businesses, the future of the Cherokee language would be in jeopardy.
“We have started the work in language preservation, but there is much more work to be done. Without additional support, we face a slow and tortuous loss of language, culture and identity.
“Wado again for the opportunity to share my testimony, my story, and my future.”