CULLOWHEE, N.C. – Cherokee Nation citizen Thomas Belt was honored on May 15 by the Western Carolina University board of trustees with the school’s highest honorary degree, a doctorate of humane letters.
Belt, who speaks the western dialect of the Cherokee language, retired in 2018 as coordinator of WCU’s Cherokee Language Program. According to a WCU press release, his work to preserve and revitalize the Cherokee language and traditional culture have had “profound significance, not only for WCU, but the region and nation as well.”
“It just finally occurred to me how prestigious it is for someone like me to be honored in this manner,” Belt said. “Even at this point I don’t have words for it. The fact that I am being recognized for the work that I did humbles me because I was just doing the best that I could do with my colleagues. It is an extreme honor to accept this from the university.”
Belt was raised in a Cherokee-speaking family in Rocky Ford, Oklahoma. He moved to the eastern Cherokee homelands in the 1990s. He still lives on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians where he first worked as a teacher in the Cherokee Central Schools.
As a teacher and scholar at WCU, he developed materials for teaching the Cherokee language and prepared multiple cohorts of students to read, speak and teach the language. The release states he is most noted for his written and spoken works, as well as appearances in documentary films that continue to be used by students, scholars and community members.
In addition to his on-campus accomplishment, the release states Belt worked closely with the American Philosophical Society and the Smithsonian Institution to develop and enact protocols for the treatment of Cherokee archival materials, in particular culturally sensitive materials in the Cherokee language. He also served as a consultant to university programs, providing regular addresses and workshops at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stanford, Yale, Duke and Wake Forest regarding the importance and significance of Indigenous languages and the worldview of Cherokee culture.
“Tom worked tirelessly to make WCU a more welcoming place for Cherokee and Native American students,” WCU Chancellor Kelli Brown said. “These students had not always seen WCU as their place, in spite of Cullowhee’s identity as a significant ancient Cherokee site and its proximity to the Qualla Boundary. With his help, we began to change, working to make Judaculla’s place a true home for Cherokee and Native American students.”
WCU is located near the ancient Mother Town site of Kituwah.