Cherokee women discuss language preservation at NSU symposium
Cora Flute, left, Phyllis Edwards, Anna Sixkiller and Phyllis Sixkiller were panelists for “Cherokee Women in Language Revitalization” during Northeastern State University’s 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian. Also on the panel, but not shown, was Kathy Sierra. D. SEAN ROWLEY/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Through the centuries, the Cherokee Nation and its people have acknowledged and celebrated the indispensable role that women play in the preservation and sharing of tribal knowledge and culture.
As part of Northeastern State University’s 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian – with the theme “Celebrating Indigenous Women” – a panel of five Cherokee women was invited to speak about the importance of preserving the tribe’s language.
The five women are members of the last tribal generation that included people who spoke Cherokee as their first language. Three panelists work for the CN: Anna Sixkiller, translation specialist; Kathy Sierra, Cherokee Language Consortium chairwoman and language program teacher and coordinator for the Cherokee Youth Choir; and Phyllis Edwards, translator. Cora Flute, master speaker, and Phyllis Sixkiller, curriculum director, serve with the tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.
Anna Sixkiller said she first believed that everyone everywhere spoke Cherokee saying, “I thought everybody lived the same way we did, and talked the language.”
After going through her early childhood as a Cherokee speaker, she and other Native speakers were punished when they entered school in Kansas, Oklahoma. They were often kept inside during recess to catch up on English. But no matter how proficient she became in her second language, she still spoke Cherokee at home.
Edwards, who lived in Marble City, also endured hardship during her early education, and said she “did not understand what the teacher was telling us,” and that she wept every day. Her father told her of the importance of education, and her mother reminded her not to forget her Cherokee language.
The women now work to preserve the language, but some expressed remorse for not teaching their own children Cherokee, believing they were saving their kids from tribulation.
“I think on my part I have failed my children because I did not want them to go through what I went through,” Edwards said. “I did not want them to feel like they were not up to where they should be because they could not speak English.”
Flute said the population of Cherokee speakers now numbers only a couple of thousand, most of whom are elderly. In March, a dozen passed away, and an average of eight die each month. Younger speakers are much less numerous, with those under 60 numbering about 250, and those under 40 amounting to just a handful.
The panelists said immersion was the best way to teach Cherokee to young people, but the students also had to commit to the task.
The Cherokee and English languages are more divergent than most. An English speaker might have an easier time learning Germanic languages (German, Swedish, Dutch) since English is of Germanic origin. Latin-based languages (Spanish, French, Italian) can also picked up more quickly because so much English is derived from French, thanks to French being used exclusively in the English royal court and legal documents for at least 450 years.
Linguists claim Japanese, Russian and many Native American languages, including Cherokee, are among the most difficult to learn for those who speak English as a first language, having evolved far from Western Europe.
Cherokee is “polysynthetic,” meaning single words can convey concepts that might require many English words. About 75 percent of Cherokee words are verbs, and speakers say changes to the language arise with each generation.
“You can’t say, ‘I would like to speak Cherokee,’” Edwards said. “You have to commit to something. It’s all about commitment. You have to commit to it as something you want to do.”