Saving Our Cherokee Language by Identifying Fluent Speakers
Cherokee Nation is embarking on a huge undertaking: surveying our citizens for an accurate number of fluent Cherokee speakers. Knowing our baseline number of speakers is essential as we continue our aggressive work in Cherokee language revitalization. As of today, our Community & Cultural Outreach department has identified nearly 2,000 fluent speakers. Just a few years back, we estimated that number at about 4,000. We are losing our speakers at an incredibly rapid rate.
Our Cherokee language is sacred, and we have an obligation to save it. It’s a battle we must win. Toward that end, we are investing more than $50,000 to conduct this community survey. Once it is finalized and complete, we can use the data to apply for additional national funding for language preservation programs.
This survey and the information collected are critical steps in growing the Cherokee language. The vast majority of our fluent speakers are over the age of 60. As those elders pass away, we lose speakers far more quickly than new speakers emerge. Thus, this effort becomes even more urgent, as we know we must identify as many first-language speakers as possible so that they can share their knowledge with a new generation. As part of the survey, Cherokee Nation will award special medallions to the identified fluent Cherokee speakers.
Recently, we hosted our first Cherokee Language Speaking Employee Appreciation Day. It was exciting to see more than 150 fluent Cherokee-speaking employees gather to discuss ways to continue growing the language. All of the tribal government’s various language programs, including the Cherokee Immersion School, the Cherokee Language Master-Apprentice program and the Cherokee Translation Department came together to share ideas and look at ways to coordinate efforts.
Our investments in language are having a visible impact. I now see young Cherokee children and even teens who are becoming fluent, something we once thought was gone forever. We are experiencing a true language revival. I believe through our hard work the Cherokee language is regularly heard, seen, appreciated and being used more by all generations.
The Cherokee language is a defining aspect of our culture; it is an integral part of our identity as Cherokee people. If our language disappears, we will be without the core of the vibrant and thriving culture we share from generation to generation.
I commend the commitment and determination of our CCO department and look forward to what this survey will yield in our language efforts. For more information on the identification survey of Cherokee speakers, contact the Cherokee Nation’s CCO department at 918-207-4995.
Bill John Baker is principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.