In 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Captain R.H. Pratt opened the first Native American boarding school to forcibly acculturate Indians to mainstream white society. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” Pratt said. Toward this goal, Indian children throughout North America were taken from their homes and families, given “white” names, wardrobes, and haircuts, and forbidden to speak any language but English.
The Cherokee Boarding School, founded in 1880, likewise maintained English-only policy until 1933 with devastating effects on Cherokee fluency. Now, however, thanks to a Language Initiative grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, programs to foster the Cherokee language are spreading through the Qualla Boundry, and beyond.
For instance, in three classrooms at the Tribal Child Care Center, children ranging from infants to three-year-olds hear and speak only Cherokee, learning English from their families and the broader environment. Studies find that children who are fluent in both their Mother Tongue, and the mainstream language perform better academically than their mono-lingual peers, and plans are afoot to extend the Cherokee Language Immersion Program through the fifth grade. The preschool students now in the program have already distinguished themselves as the most dignified, respectful, and attentive children among their age-mates on the Boundry.
“Cherokee speakers have a different way of carrying themselves,” notes one Immersion teacher, “and this communicates itself to and through these children.”
Older students and adults on the Boundry are also eager to improve their Cherokee, but with most fluent speakers over age 50 and numbers dying every year, there are not enough teachers. To address this, the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program is developing Cherokee-language video podcasts and interactive online Cherokee classes, promoting a venerable language with cutting-edge technology. Meanwhile, nearby Western Carolina University is developing a Cherokee Language Academy. Staff members will develop Cherokee language courses and certification programs, recruit students to become language teachers, and create a Kituwah Teaching Fellows Program.
The language of the Cherokee may yet prove as resilient as those who have kept it alive.