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Churches keep Cherokee language alive in sermons, song

Churches keep Cherokee language alive in sermons, song

In his early days of preaching, the Rev. Rufus King could give “a good half and half” of his service in Cherokee and English.

“Now, I can get by just English speaking,” the 79-year-old pastor of Round Springs Baptist Church in Eucha said. “But always I speak a few words (in Cherokee), just not the entire service. But I could. I love it. It’s important. I think about it, why the Lord gave us Cherokee language to use, to speak. The language itself is very important.”

Like fellow pastors in eastern Oklahoma, King has during the years seen a steady decrease in the number of Cherokee speaking church-goers. Still, he has more than most with approximately 30 – half of his congregation, he says.

“They are getting scarce,” King said, adding that he enjoys reading scripture in his first language. “I’ll take my Cherokee Testament with me, read them in Cherokee and talk about something that interests me. I could go probably about an hour. All the Cherokee speakers were probably like that, you know, when we had them – kind of long-winded. I am too a little bit. But when I do Cherokee, I love it.”

King, who has been preaching in Eucha for more than three decades, holds admiration for “those old-time preachers.”

“The way I understood it, the way I took it then, they wanted a Holy Spirit-led service,” he said. “When I read that scripture, the words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to write it down on a paper. That’s the way it is with me.”

Round Springs and a host of other local churches took part in the Cherokee Baptist Association’s 150-year anniversary celebration in 2019.

“I got a part to preach a complete, total Cherokee sermon,” King said. “I didn’t have to dig for anything. It just came out easy.”

While Elm Tree Baptist Church in Tahlequah no longer offers full sermons in Cherokee due to a dwindling number of speakers, the language is still used in Sunday school and singing. Of the 70-member congregation, approximately a dozen speak the language, according to the Rev. D.J. McCarter, the church’s pastor of 29 years.

“When the elders were with us – they’re all gone now – I did more of my sermon in Cherokee,” he said. “But today, most of the congregation don’t understand it. But if I want to emphasize something, sometimes a Cherokee word emphasizes it more than an English word.”

Henry Birdtail, a deacon at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Porum, said church-goers have in the past been taught Cherokee in Sunday school settings, but fluent speakers are rare.

“The full-speaking Cherokees, I just can’t find them nowhere no more hardly,” he said.

Cherokee National Treasure Dennis Sixkiller, a pastor at First Indian Baptist Church in Tahlequah, also sees just a handful of fluent speakers on Sundays.

“I do preach in Cherokee for a little bit because there’s not that many speakers there,” he said. “There’s a lot of Cherokee going on in some churches. We sing some at our church too, but not like it used to be when I was a kid.”

Having the language represented in some fashion is important to Sixkiller, a fluent speaker, “and should be important to all Cherokee citizens,” he said.

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