Keeping the Cherokee Language Alive: Teaching College Students & Adult Second Language Learners | Cherokee, NC

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Keeping the Cherokee Language Alive: Teaching College Students & Adult Second Language Learners

(Photo by Kristy Maney, EBCI. Bullet Standingdeer, left, with Warriors of AniKituhwa from American Indian Heritage Celebration in Raleigh, NC, November 2017. Bullet is one of the partners who launched Your Grandmother's Cherokee)

More than just a means of communication, language is intrinsic to cultural identity and group solidarity. For the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, their native tongue is in danger of being lost.

Beginning around 1970, most Cherokee families stopped using the language in their homes. As a result, very few, if any, Cherokee children learned to speak the language. Today, there are only about 200 native speakers in the Eastern Band, and the majority are over the age of 55. As more and more speakers pass away, the efforts to preserve the language have intensified.

In our last blog post, “Keeping the Cherokee Language Alive: Teaching Children Early On,” we examined the language preservation efforts in Western North Carolina, spotlighting several of the wonderful programs and opportunities that exist to help children learn Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, NC, and Snowbird community of Graham County, NC. In this post, we look at some of the successful courses and resources that help college students and adults, who had no prior experience speaking or reading Cherokee, begin to master the language.

Your Grandmother’s Cherokee: Four Levels of Online Courses

A member of EBCI, Bullet Standingdeer says he was not born into the language. Growing up, he occasionally heard older people talking in Cherokee, but he was told to be respectful and move away: “They were having a conversation and it was none of my business.” When he was about nine years old, Bullet began learning more about traditional Cherokee dance from a native speaker. This is where his interest in the language was piqued, but he didn’t start learning it yet.

Bullet first joined an immersion class about a decade ago when he was 51 years old. He says he had difficulty with the method as it was based on memorization. “There was no way for my memory to be big enough for this,” he recalls. “I thought there had to be an easier way… I got to thinking, as I looked around, there are many people who grew up like me... How many people could come to this world and leave this world speaking this language? It couldn’t be this hard (to learn).”

Bullet began studying the syllabary chart looking for the key to learning it. He noticed the presence and absence of certain marks and symbols. He began asking questions of the native speakers, but wasn’t getting any answers he considered satisfactory. He decided he would have to work on his own to try and see the patterns for himself.

In 2006, Bullet met up with Dr. Barbara Duncan, Education Director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, who learned Cherokee later in life. He showed her the alphabet that he designed and asked her if it made sense. She said it did. They agreed that there were simple, consistent, logical patterns that made the conjugations of Cherokee words so different from those of English words. The two decided to work on a method that breaks the long words into simple patterns, written in standard phonetics, to help people to pick up Cherokee as a second language. They called it Your Grandmother’s Cherokee.

Their third partner was Susan Reimensnyder, a programmer and Barbara’s sister. When Barbara explained to her that their method was like a math equation, Susan replied that it was a program. The three partners received a patent for their software. “Make-a-Word” is a user-friendly web interface that puts together long polysynthetic words.

In 2012, when they weren’t working at their jobs (Barbara at the Museum and Bullet as a land surveyor), they began co-teaching a weekly pilot class with several members of EBCI and a couple members of the Cherokee Nation. This group, which continues meeting today, was crucial for figuring out the pace of the courses and what materials would be most helpful. “This group wanted to learn, and in the process they helped me develop the courses using the method,” says Barbara. Today, these “beta-testers” are at an advanced level of reading and writing.

Since then, Your Grandmother’s Cherokee has sold dozens of courses to people from all over the country, including citizens of the EBCI and the Cherokee nation. The online classes are designed to be self-explanatory. Barbara adds, “Dialogues posted on YouTube provide students with the opportunity to repeat after a fluent speaker, June Stamper Smith, who grew up speaking Cherokee language.”

Barbara says this program has been a huge success for their students because they are able to actually speak Cherokee and get beyond “Hello, how are you?” She explains, “Because they can use and manipulate/conjugate these long words, they can get to a level of being able to talk to the speakers, of being able to translate old documents and on that level, it is incredibly fulfilling and successful.”

The in-person classes with textbooks based on Your Grandmother’s Cherokee are only available to the public at UNC Asheville.

(Students in UNC Asheville's Cherokee Level III class translate "Go Braves" for the Cherokee NC football team heading to state championship playoffs. L to R: Brantly Junaluska, Lacey Arch, Priscilla Squirrel, and Devyn Smith, all EBCI members)

UNC Asheville: Cherokee I-IV

In fall 2016, the University of North Carolina-Asheville began offering its Cherokee Language Program with Cherokee I. In the spring, students could advance to Cherokee II. These Cherokee language classes are co-taught by Gilliam Jackson, a native speaker and resident of the Snowbird community, and Barbara. By fall of 2017, the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Minor (AIIS) was approved, and the Cherokee classes fell under the minor. Cherokee III and Cherokee IV were taught in fall 2017 and spring 2018, respectively. One year of Cherokee I and II can fulfill any student’s foreign language requirement. Photo below is UNC Asheville's Cherokee Level III class. From L to R: Dakota Brown (EBCI), Andrew Lee, Priscilla Squirrell (EBCI), Brantly Junaluska (EBCI), Lacey Arch (EBCI), Mark Hurby, Taylor Heise. Front: Ashlee McMahan, Alex Austi.

Joining the UNC Asheville faculty in fall 2012, Dr. Trey Adcock is the director of AIIS and works with administration to implement the curriculum on campus. “I am a Cherokee Nation citizen (Oklahoma) and I think language is central to who we are as a people. It ties together so many different things for Cherokee people.” When he attended UNC Chapel Hill for graduate school, Trey took three semesters of online Cherokee language classes at Western Carolina University. “As a Cherokee person, to have the opportunity to learn the language was something that I really cherished.”

He says that when he became a professor at UNC Asheville, one of his first priorities was implementing Cherokee cultural and language offerings. “UNC Asheville sits within Cherokee lands. As we give talks on campus and as we have events, it’s one thing we are constantly trying to remind people and educate people: You are navigating Cherokee space... I think, from an administrative perspective, if they want the Eastern Band to be a meaningful partner, I think they have to have curriculum on campus that reflects their respect and their understanding of the space they inhabit. I think the language is a part of that.”

Historically, universities have not always done a great job of recognizing, understanding, and respecting indigenous knowledge. Trey says, “For me, for our kids to walk around campus and speak Cherokee, it’s a form of resistance and I never really lose sight of that.”

Trey says that one of the projects UNC Asheville students in the minor are working on is a digital history project with the Snowbird Cherokee community to preserve photos and collect oral histories from elders who attended The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ school called Snowbird Day School that closed in 1962. “Some of our students who are in those Cherokee language classes are going to help with interviewing elders in Cherokee and also transcribing some of the interviews.” It’s estimated that 80 alumni are still living, but they’re getting older. “The majority of them are first language speakers. It needs to be documented,” says Trey. ​(Photo below of Snowbird Day School students, courtesy of David Crowe Family from the David Crowe Collection)

Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Language Program

Dr. Sara Snyder is the Director of the Cherokee Language Program at Western Carolina University, which is within the Cherokee Studies program—a minor in the Anthropology and Sociology Department. While she is not Cherokee, Sara learned the language later in life and has spent many years working within the EBCI community. While earning her PhD in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in New York, Sara took linguistic anthropology classes and became invested in language revitalization. She decided she would write her dissertation on the topic.

In summer 2008, during her second year of the PhD program, Sara traveled to Cherokee to take Cherokee language classes and Barbara Duncan’s Cherokee culture class at the Museum. “I made a lot of wonderful friends the first summer I came down,” says Sara.

After she completed her four years of coursework at Columbia, Sara moved to Western North Carolina in fall 2010 to work on her dissertation. What is typically a year or two of research for a PhD student turned into six years because Sara felt so drawn to the people she met and took a job at the New Kituwah Academy as the Music and Arts teacher. She stayed with the school for five years before finishing her dissertation and degree, and getting hired by WCU. “I finally finished my dissertation around the time that the job became available at WCU and so it just kind of worked out. It was really difficult leaving the school because I loved working there.” Sara began teaching at WCU in fall 2016 as a visiting professor before become a tenure track professor in fall 2017. During the summer between academic years, Sara worked with the Snowbird summer camp, writing songs for the students to learn.

Sara co-teaches classes with Tom Belt, a native speaker, citizen of the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma), and Cherokee Language Program Coordinator. She calls him the “soul” of the program, and says she loves learning from him, and soaking up his knowledge like a sponge. In their first semester of teaching, they had about 60 students across three classes

Although Cherokee language classes have been taught for a couple decades, WCU’s Cherokee Language Program has only been around for 12 years. It was kickstarted by a grant from The Cherokee Preservation Foundation in coordination with WCU and Kituwah Preservation Education Program (KPEP) that, among other programs, runs New Kituwah Academy.

“We do more than just teach about Cherokee topics,” says Sara. “We do a lot of background support for native student organizations and individuals.” Tom and Sara work closely with Sky Sampson, the new director of WCU’s Cherokee Center to support native students. Staying connected to New Kituwah, Sara says they take their WCU students there for service learning projects.

You Can Learn Cherokee, Too!

The only way for a language to survive is if people continue speaking it and pass it on to future generations. With online programs and in-person classes, adults of all ages and backgrounds are able to learn the language. In the past, the Snowbird Adult Classes took place in the evening in the fall and winter. Currently, nonprofit Snowbird Cherokee Traditions is in the planning phase for future versions of these adult classes.

Learn at your leisure, from the comfort of your own home. Now through the spring, Your Grandmother’s Cherokee’s online classes are available at half price. Use the coupon code LEARN2018 at checkout.

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