Cherokee speakers, leaders break ground at site of future language center

TAHLEQUAH – Fluent Cherokee speakers and tribal leaders gathered May 19 to celebrate a forthcoming, multi-million-dollar project that will transform a former casino into the tribe’s new language hub.

The fanfare and groundbreaking ceremony were held near the Tribal Complex at the former Cherokee Casino Tahlequah, which will be remodeled and expanded into the Durbin Feeling Language Center for approximately $5 million.

“Here is where our children will dance and sing in our language,” Cherokee Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden said. “They will learn our ways here. Mothers and fathers will learn Cherokee here. Cherokee-speaking elders will be loved and adored here.”

When completed, the center will consolidate all of the tribe’s language-related efforts under one roof. This includes the Cherokee Immersion School, Master-Apprentice Language Program and the tribe’s translation team.

“It would be a game-changer just bringing everybody in one location and everybody to work together,” an “ecstatic” Paden said. “I think this is the most cutting-edge thing that we’re doing. We can build high-rises, we can do all kinds of things. But if we don’t save our language, we don’t save our culture … then we’re no longer a people.”

Plans call for adding wings on both ends of the building.

“The original square footage of this building was 20,600 square feet, but when completed will more than double to be more than 50,000 square feet,” Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said.

Other planned features include a kitchen and cafeteria, gymnasium and external storm shelter.

Paden estimates it will take between a year and 18 months to complete the center. Once completed, the center will help produce more Cherokee speakers, he said.

“We have 2,000 right now,” he added. “We lost 135 last year, and we’ve lost right around 54 since Jan. 1st of this year.”

New Cherokee speakers are trained via the CN’s master-apprentice program, which has been expanded under Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.’s watch. 

“We’re one of the largest tribes in the country,” Hoskin said. “Yet we have been reduced to 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers today – 390,000 citizens, 2,000 fluent speakers left.”

Hoskin pointed to past leaders, such as former Chief Bill John Baker, who advanced the cause of language preservation.

“We’re here today in large measure because of his vision to turn this into a language center,” Hoskin said. “The Master-Apprentice Language Program was conceived under his leadership. Expanding our immersion program was part of his effort.”

The center is named after the late linguist Durbin Feeling, widely considered the greatest modern contributor to the preservation of the Cherokee language. Feeling died in August 2020 at age 74.

“Durbin Feeling did as much for our people than anybody I can remember,” Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said. “The center cannot be more appropriately named than Durbin.”

According to the tribe, Feeling wrote the Cherokee dictionary, added the syllabary on a word processor in the 1980s, developed hundreds of Cherokee language teaching materials and started the process to add the Cherokee language on Unicode, which today allows smartphones to offer the syllabary.

In 2019, the Tribal Council passed the Durbin Feeling Preservation Act to invest $16 million in the Cherokee language, $5 million of which is earmarked for the new language center. The CN already invests more than $6 million per year into its language efforts. 

During the May 19 event, tribal leaders also unveiled to the public a language village with five efficiency style homes for fluent speakers. 

The homes are intended to help speakers connect to younger Cherokee language learners at the language center. The speakers village is named in honor of the late Bonnie Kirk, a Cherokee speaker and Cherokee Immersion School teacher.