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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The children stand in a circle, just beyond a poster of a U.S. map that highlights the swath of the Southeastern United States that the Cherokees once controlled.
The fourth-grade students are in a classroom at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School in eastern Oklahoma, where they speak, learn and write in nothing but the tongue of their ancestors.
The conversation among the animated pupils bounces around the circle. They are preparing for a Cherokee language competition and in doing so, talking about a scenario in which they are looking to meet up with their teacher, Glenda Beitz, in a Walmart parking lot — if they could only remember where she lived.
The exercise aims to emphasize Oklahoma town names because “those are disappearing in our language,” said Beitz, 49, who has taught the class of eight 9-year-olds since they entered kindergarten.
When they finish with the conversation exercise, the students tap out assignments in the 86 characters of the Cherokee syllabary on their computers. At their disposal are Cherokee-language versions of Microsoft Office Suite, Google and Wikipedia. There are also Cherokee-language apps and a Cherokee YouTube channel. Facebook is available in Cherokee. And text messages can be sent in the Cherokee language too.
The school and language-integrated technology are two trailblazing efforts put in place to save and preserve the Cherokee tongue. But even so, the staunchest supporters of the tribe’s language preservation efforts still wonder, Will they be able to save the imperiled language?
Tahlequah sits in the rolling, wooded foothills of the Ozarks in eastern Oklahoma, roughly 170 miles northeast of Oklahoma City. Bright and bustling cafes, bakeries, music and art shops fill out the downtown, which is anchored around the campus of Northeastern State University. A number of the signs on campus and throughout the town are written both in English and in Cherokee characters.
Cherokees began fleeing west in the early 1800s in the face of violent encroachment by European settlers who took over their lands. Most arrived in Tahlequah 1838 after being forcibly removed from their homeland. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died of disease, exposure and starvation along the way on what became known as the Trail of Tears.
By the time they arrived in Oklahoma, the Cherokees had what few other Native American tribes did: a written language. Created in a massive independent effort by a Cherokee named Sequoyah from 1809 to 1821, the 86-symbol syllabary was initially viewed with a great deal of fear and skepticism. A Cherokee chief placed Sequoyah on trial for witchcraft, but Sequoyah managed to convince the Cherokee warriors who served as judges that the symbols represented speech and nothing else. Literacy spread, and the tribe quickly formed a public school and university system after arriving in Oklahoma.
Now the Cherokee are the most populous tribe in the United States, according to tribal officials, including more than 315,000 members, mostly in Oklahoma, as well as bands in Arkansas and North Carolina. The Cherokee Nation’s annual operating budget of $1.2 billion is buoyed largely by casino revenue, and it has used some of its monetary and intellectual resources to adapt the language for modern use, said Colleen Fitzgerald, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“They’ve done a tremendous amount in terms of having the resources — speakers and technology and expertise — to work with companies like Google and Microsoft to open up Cherokee language and literacy to their community and others,” said Fitzgerald, whose research and teachings focus on documenting and revitalizing Native American languages.
The latest estimate from the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger reports 10,000 Cherokees are fluent, placing Cherokee among the healthier of 175 indigenous languages in the United States. Cherokees say that figure is out of date. It’s based on a survey about a decade old that doesn’t reflect the ongoing loss of an important resource: fluent elders, said Roy Boney, the 35-year-old manager of the Cherokee Language Program.
“Right now, between around 2,000 to 5,000 or 6,000 is more realistic,” he said.
In the United States, the Navajo have the most robust indigenous language, bar none, with estimates of speakers ranging from 100,000 to 120,000, Fitzgerald said. Many other indigenous languages have only a handful of speakers and are threatened with extinction as the last elderly speakers die off.
Many Cherokee are determined that their language will not suffer that fate. Cherokee is Beitz’ first language; her mother spoke nothing else. Among the Cherokees, that’s a rare scenario these days, according to many members of the community.
Immersion school programs like those run by the Cherokees help keep indigenous languages alive as fluent speakers become increasingly rare. Other tribes are spearheading like-minded initiatives. The Lakota in South Dakota have created “language nests” to replicate the home environment and interaction with fluent speakers. The Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma has a master-apprentice program that pairs a fluent first-language speaker with one who is just learning the language, which the Cherokees hope to replicate, Boney said.
“It’s an extremely hard language to learn if they’ve not been immersed in it at home,” Beitz said of Cherokee. “They can carry on quite a bit with me, and I’m amazed with that and happy with it.”
She wonders, though, once the students leave her tutelage, “Are they going to forget everything?”
At the Cherokee Arts Center Spider Gallery in downtown Tahlequah, traditional baskets and hunting bows and colorful paintings and pottery pieces adorn the walls and shelves.
Among those who stopped by to check on his inventory recently was Richard Fields, 55, a Cherokee speaker and maker of traditional hunting bows. He and other native speakers express a great deal of skepticism that the tribe’s language preservation efforts will work for very long. “There are some people out there who are teaching Cherokee around here, which is good. But you’ve got to have respect for the language, which most people don’t.”
He admits his own sons lack the patience for it. “Sometimes they speak it good, sometimes they don’t,” he says.
Cherokees speaking different dialects are scattered around Oklahoma. Speakers from certain areas of eastern Oklahoma often have a difficult time understanding one another, he says. Fields sees the old words and cultural nuances associated with the language being lost forever.
Fields headed to the Elder Community Center in town, which provides free lunches to tribal elders 55 or older five days a week. Outside, Annie Wildcat, 69, sits and reads with her daughter Sissy Wildcat, 52. Annie Wildcat understands English but speaks only Cherokee, and Fields stops to talk with the women about the Cherokee language.
Interpreting for Annie Wildcat, he said, “She said she don’t know about other tribes, but the Cherokees, she thinks, that’s it. Her generation and mine, that’s it.”
Is there any hope? Annie Wildcat shakes her head no. She pauses, then speaks and gestures down the road.
“She says she likes to teach it to their grandchildren, but sometimes they don’t make the time,” Fields said. “This immersion school, that’s the only way they’re going to learn how to speak it.”
In the school, the children are working on the language. They scrawl writing assignments on notebook paper in Cherokee characters. Beitz corrects the stories — typical errors involve tense — and then the students type final versions on their MacBooks.
Skyla Sikora, a 9-year-old of Polish and Cherokee descent, takes a break from her task. Learning about the tribe’s history, like the Trail of Tears, makes her sad, she said.
It's difficult to talk about language preservation without noting what the indigenous people in the United States have endured — forced removal, relocation, massacres and boarding schools in which children were even beaten for speaking their language, said Fitzgerald.
“Revitalizing the language is healing,” she said. “It connects you with ancestors. It reconnects you with the community and creates a common identity everyone is proud of. It’s a very healing thing to be able to say something in your language.”
Asked if the language will survive, Sikora is sure of it.
“We’re the only ones who can keep it alive,” she said.