FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – As part of the University of Arkansas Indigenous Studies Program, the Cherokee language is being taught for the first time at the school by Cherokee Nation citizen Lawrence Panther, of Kansas, Oklahoma.
Indigenous Studies Program Director Sean Teuton, also a CN citizen, has worked for several years to get a Cherokee language class into the curriculum because of the state’s Cherokee history.
“This is acknowledgement of the history of the Cherokee people here and the Cherokee language finally being spoken here again in a formal setting. There’s a lot to be proud of right now on this 200 year anniversary (of Sequoyah’s syllabary),” Teuton said.
After moving from California to Arkansas, Teuton saw a need for the Indigenous Studies Program and the Cherokee language at the university.
“We’re at this moment now where we see the great importance of having the Cherokee language taught here. And I worked for several years making trips over to Cherokee Nation,” he said. “It’s been very difficult. For one reason, I greatly respect the need to have any speaker working in the Cherokee Nation with the communities. On the other hand, it’s very important to have someone here at the university like we have at OU (University of Oklahoma), working with Cherokee students and others who want to learn our language.”
After taking a Cherokee language class with Panther in Siloam Springs, the two kept in touch. And when the time came to establish the class, Panther was the one to teach it.
“He interviewed here with our Department of World Languages, and I helped out with the interview,” Teuton said. “They liked what they saw and they said ‘let’s hire Lawrence.’ So we had to work very hard to get funding to bring him here, and now he’s here.”
Panther teaches on Monday and Wednesday evenings, in addition to teaching at Stilwell High School.
“Currently I’m teaching at Stilwell, Cherokee I and II, and Cherokee life ways, kind of like a history class,” Panther said.
He also teaches at Rock Fence Church in Adair County. He’s taught all levels of Cherokee from beginner to fluent, which helped prepare him to teach a college course.
“I think I was prepared to go because of all of the diversity of teaching. That helped me a lot,” he said. “I was a little nervous at first. But I’ve been teaching the last 15 years.”
A few weeks in at the university, he realized his students are quick learners.
“Right now we’re just going through the syllabary chart. I’m getting them familiar with it and how it’s structured,” said Panther. “Hopefully we can do some reading. They’re pretty quick learners, I realized that. That’s good. It makes me go faster there.”
Panther’s first language is Cherokee, and he is a self-taught reader and writer of the syllabary. He earned a culture degree at Northeastern State University, which he said opened many teaching doors.
“This is my life, the Cherokee language and teaching,” said Panther. “It’s something I really enjoy. I just love it. That’s all I do. Even when I’m home I’m looking through stuff and trying to get ideas on how to come up with things for students at school.”
At Arkansas, students will study the Cherokee syllabary, how to read and write it, basic conversations, verb conjugation, prefixes and suffixes, and stems, or verbs.
Panther has compiled a list of 400 to 500 stems he uses in his classes that he hopes to get published as a workbook for people wanting to learn the language.
Teuton said the class turnout exceeded expectations, having to cap the class at 20 students. He said they hope to offer Cherokee II in the spring and Cherokee III next fall.
“The need is amazing. Typically, Native people aren’t always on the radar at the university,” said Teuton. “They said ‘you think there would be enough interest?’ I said ‘watch,’ and people are shocked at how many folks want to take the language (class) and want to study it.”