Churches struggle to retain language
- Long Prairie Baptist Church lies at the end of a dirt road stretching south from U.S. 412 in this Delaware County town, and it is one of three original churches of the Cherokee Baptist Association along with Antioch and Salem.
Cherokee families that claim histories with the church include the Cochrans, O'Fieldses, Russells, Glasses and Snells.
The church's history used to be recorded in Cherokee at a quarterly meeting, and Cherokee was heard at every sermon and function. But now records are written in English, and English is the main language heard during services.
George Cochran, a deacon at Long Prairie since 1975 after returning from the Army, said he remembers as a child when Cherokee was the only language used at the church - written or spoken.
"Back in the late 50s, it was all Cherokee," he said. "Even the records that were kept were written in Cherokee, but we don't have them anymore. Every meeting Bud Snell, who was the secretary, wrote Cherokee in the record books."
Cochran said he saw Cherokee slowly succumb to English over the years. After returning from the Army, he said the records of the church had been put into English, and English was being spoken more at the church, although the congregation still spoke its native tongue.
"About that time it was still a little bit more Cherokee and less English," he said. "But by the time I became a deacon there, more English was being used."
Things didn't improve throughout the 1980s and 90s, and now Cochran said the congregation of about 40 hears Cherokee only 25 percent of the time during services.
"We don't use Cherokee all the time," he said. "Our pastor doesn't speak Cherokee, so sometimes I preach in Cherokee, and since he doesn't speak Cherokee he preaches in English."
But Cochran said he doesn't preach in Cherokee all the time and reserves it for special occasions. However, about 50 percent of the Sunday-school lessons are given in Cherokee.
"If we are reading our lessons, some of them read it in Cherokee, and the rest of them read it in English," he said. "The kids don't even speak Cherokee anymore more - it's just the older ones."
But the decline of the language hasn't shocked Cochran. In fact, he expected it.
"I haven't even thought about it too much," he said. "It's just the way the times changed. It's always been expected because of the prophecy of our ancestors saying that there will become only one language. It may not be English, and it could be Spanish or something, but it doesn't surprise me at all."
But that's not to say the church hasn't tried to revive the language. Cochran said older church members tried to teach younger members the language, but it only worked out to a small degree.
"It's hard to get people to come and to learn the language and to read and write," he said. "We tried to start a Cherokee class back in 2000 and a few came. They did learn to read, but they just didn't know what they were reading."
Despite the decline of Cherokee, Cochran said he still feels it's important for Cherokees to learn their language, especially if he wants to communicate with them in the future.
"I believe it's really important to learn the language," he said. "Everybody just loves it, the sound of it. It's pretty. Plus, as I get older I'm losing English anyway, and I'm going to have to go back to my own language because there are so many words in English that I don't understand already."
But not all churches in Cherokee Nation are seeing the language disappear. At Belfonte Baptist Church near Nicut in Sequoyah County, pastor Martin Cochran said his church's Cherokee use is still strong.
He said his church, where he has preached for 27 years, still uses Cherokee in services, although the percentage of usage depends on the crowd.
"There are times we get some yonegs (white people) coming to the church, and our membership has about a dozen Anglo folks. And some of our Cherokees, especially the younger ones now, are not speaking as much language as they once did. So we have to use some English, but mostly Cherokee."
At Belfonte, Cherokee is used for general services or for "delivering the message" to his flock of 140, Martin Cochran said. The pastor added that the adult Sunday-school classes use Cherokee 100 percent of the time, but the younger generations use mostly English.
"Probably a majority of the Cherokees speak the language there," Martin Cochran said. "It would be safe to say that 90 percent of the adult Cherokees are fluent in reading and writing Cherokee. The younger generation doesn't read or write as much as their elders, but they are beginning to learn."
However, he said most of the younger members understand the language, and some can speak it. And whereas the Cherokee literacy rate has fallen at Long Prairie, Martin Cochran said it has risen over the years at his church.
"As far as literacy, it's increased extensively since I've been there," he said. "On Wednesday nights, in place of Bible study, we do lessons in Cherokee and that has really helped. It's helped more people become literate in the language."
He added that speaking the language at church has remained "steadfast as a whole" even though the younger generation has decreased its usage. Martin Cochran said over time, the Cherokee language could decrease at the church because of the younger generation.
"A lot of our younger children, even though they are Cherokees, are not speaking the language like they used to," he said. "In fact, our Sunday-school teachers in the lower age groups speak only English, but overall it's holding on pretty much there, and that's kind of a rare community."
He said he's happy to see the language still being used in the church, but that the church hasn't done anything recently to improve the number of Cherokee speakers within the congregation.
"I think the church would have to see how the younger generation reacts to the language's usage on whether or not we do anything to help revive the language," he said.
But that's not to say the pastor doesn't feel the language isn't important, whether it be for worship or for everyday use.
"It's the language that we meditate in," he said. "Even myself, I'm bilingual, and I think I'm still probably more fluent in Cherokee than English. I think that most (adult Cherokee) people are non-English when they take care of business such as going to the medical clinic or lawyer's office. They still aren't confident in the English language. That's true also in church worship where it's even more critical to comprehend the language. Therefore, the majority of our adult population is more comfortable with Cherokee."