Keeping the Cherokee Language Alive: Teaching Children Early On | Cherokee, NC

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Keeping the Cherokee Language Alive: Teaching Children Early On

(Students and faculty at New Kituwah Academy)

In the 1870s, the United States government established boarding schools where Native American children were forced to cut their hair, dress in uniforms, and speak exclusively in English. Native children subjected to this harsh and often abusive environment were separated from their families and traditions in an effort towards “assimilation,” and given Euro-American names to replace their own. In Cherokee, North Carolina, as in so many other Native communities across the country, the effects of these boarding schools still have impact today.

One result of this federal education system is that most children did not grow up speaking their parent’s tongue and the Cherokee language began to disappear. Today, there are about 225 Cherokee who speak the language fluently; the majority of them are elders. Efforts in the last few decades to revitalize the language are hopeful but also reveal the complexities of such an undertaking. There have been multifaceted efforts by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and its partners the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, and Western Carolina University (more here).

Many people have been involved in language preservation efforts on the Qualla Boundary and Snowbird community in Graham County. In this blog post, we wanted to outline some of the ways in which efforts by innovators, instructors, elders, and educators are helping to teach children the Cherokee language. (Below, students at New Kituwah Academy)

Immersion at The New Kituwah Academy

The language immersion school known today as The New Kituwah Academy opened in April 2004 in the Dora Reed Childcare Center. The school currently has 98 enrolled students ages 2–13 (preschool to sixth grade), with one classroom per grade. The immersion approach has been very successful in helping children achieve fluency.

For students in early childhood care, the Cherokee language is spoken all day. In kindergarten through second grade, it is nearly all day, and for third to sixth grade it is about 50% of the time. “The translation process for complex terms makes it difficult to create materials for the upper grades,” says Renissa, “However, we re-focused instruction and have students work on conversational Cherokee as opposed to academic content. Our mission is to have students be conversationally fluent, so in order to meet that goal, we changed our focus and students work on conversation and grammar.”

Renissa McLaughlin is the Manager of the Kituwah Preservation & Education Program and Director for the New Kituwah Academy Early Childhood. She says, “Jean Bushyhead started the first classroom with Tina Saunooke at Dora Reed. The program was a successor to the Cherokee Language Early Childhood Program, which did drop-in language at various centers.  There were no documents about the vision or planning. Jean opened the room in April (2004) and left the program in September of the same year. I took over from there.”

When it comes to measuring success, the growth of the school and positive response means the programming is working. “We have had continuous growth since the first classroom and have branched out to adult immersion,” says Renissa. “There has been a growing interest in learning the language over the past few years. Our students are academically successful and well adjusted.”

As for the parents, none of them are native Cherokee speakers. The students, therefore, spend about 80% of their waking hours per year in English. “There is no fear they won’t speak or read English as it is all around them,” explains Renissa. “We track students who have graduated and they have transitioned well—at least 75% of our graduates are at and above grade level. We have some graduates that are in accelerated and gifted classes.”

As for academics after sixth grade graduation, many students continue with language classes at the middle school and high school level at nearby schools, such as Robbinsville. The first six children who graduated from New Kituwah attended Swain County Middle School (there is also a program at the high school). “Part of our charge is keeping them in the language,” says Bo Lossiah, Curriculum, Instruction & Community Supervisor at the New Kituwah Academy. Bo has been working at the Academy since 2009. (Below, faculty at New Kituwah Academy)

Cherokee Language Programs at Area Schools

A native speaker, Laura Pinnix grew up in Cherokee’s Big Cove community. In second grade, she didn’t know her ABCs, having spoken primarily Cherokee at home. “I heard the English language but didn’t think it was right to speak English at the time,” Laura recalls. Her teacher told her mother that she would have to learn more English or might have to repeat the grade.  

Laura has been teaching the Cherokee language for more than 30 years at Cherokee Central Schools. Every student in the Cherokee Central elementary and middle school is enrolled in a Cherokee language class. When it comes to high school, each student is required to pass a Cherokee language class before graduation. Cherokee II is mandatory for a foreign language credit if students are pursuing college. Laura says that the Tribal Council met around 1977, under Chief John Crowe, and passed a resolution that mandated Cherokee language in the school system. It was instituted in the high school around 1982 right around when Laura began her career.

“I teach at the high school level, but am training other people so they can take my place when I retire... “We realize that we’re short on speakers everywhere so we decided to train our own. Before we put them in the classroom, we sit down with them and train them before they even go in the classroom.” Teachers follow/shadow/do small group instruction for at least a year to get to know the curriculum.

Laura says that history and culture classes are also tied in, especially during summer school with basketry, pottery, beadwork, gourd making, and doll making.

In June 2016, the Shiyo app, that Laura helped develop, went live. It is geared toward helping second-language learners add new Cherokee words to their vocabulary. There have been about 6,000 downloads of the app from people across many countries, including the United States, China, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. “Mostly because when we first started the app, we had to start with the basics. We knew there were a lot even here who didn’t know the Cherokee language so we started very basic,” says Laura. “App two is still very basic, but getting into more sentences. App three is going to be more short conversational pieces.” The second and third apps are still in the works.

Cherokee Language Summer Camp in Robbinsville

The late Beloved Woman Shirley Oswalt, who was on the inaugural board of New Kituwah Academy from 2004 to 2006, opened the Cherokee Language Summer Camp in Robbinsville in 2007. Today, over a decade later, the six-week camp takes place at Robbinsville High School and continues to teach language lessons to children ages 5–17 from the traditional Snowbird community of Graham County.

Gilliam Jackson, a native speaker who was born and raised in the Snowbird community, is currently serving as executive director of Snowbird Cherokee Traditions, a nonprofit that receives about 90% of its funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation for the camp and other cultural activities. With a degree in Education and graduate degree in Administration and Planning, Gil served as principal of the New Kituwah Academy for about nine years before semi-retiring in 2013 and returning to Graham County.

For someone who’s retired, Gil sure isn’t standing still. “I think it’s my commitment to the language,” says Gil when we asked why he feels called to this line of work. “I feel very strongly that our language is what they call a dying language. Little children are not learning the language, so it’s on its way out.” In addition to his involvement with the summer camp, Gil teaches Cherokee at Robbinsville High School.

Gil is excited about preparing children to be the next generation of instructors. “What we’re looking forward to this year is moving some kids from the camp into teachers aids or interns. Our teachers are now kids who learned Cherokee as a second language,” says Gil. “They can’t teach as much as I can and we don’t expect that, but they can teach enough that we can keep the language going.” Another initiative through the Snowbird Cherokee Traditions is a video history project. “We’ll be interviewing probably every speaker in the Snowbird community in the language, voice recording and video recording, and then we’ll transcribe those into English,” says Gil. “We only have about 225-230 people who speak the language fluently, and the rest of them are second language learners and they’re going to need some resources. The only resources they are going to have are voice recordings. So we’re doing that as well.”

Apps, Instruction & Other Resources for Adult Second-Language Learners

Gil also teaches classes at UNC Asheville with Dr. Barbara Duncan, Education Director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. For our next blog post on Cherokee language revitalization, we will dive into curriculum and educational resources geared toward college students and adults at Western Carolina University, UNC Asheville, and online, at home. Stay tuned!

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