Speaking across Generations: Cherokee Work to Save Their Language

Article excerpt

"Language, more than anything else in a culture, encapsulates the philosophy, and the world view, and the patterns of thinking of the people," says Barbara Duncan, the education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Today, the Cherokee language is endangered. Although ten thousand speakers remain in Oklahoma and North Carolina, most are more than fifty years old. Less than 5 percent of Cherokee children are learning to speak the language.

"There's only a window of twenty years or so, or less, to make sure the language continues," Duncan says.

Duncan is heading a two-year effort by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to preserve and revitalize the language. The project is part of NEH's Documenting Endangered Languages initiative, which has funded efforts to preserve more than seventy languages. Museum scholars, Cherokee language students, and community elders will work with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to digitize and translate a collection of Cherokee documents spanning 150 years.

The documents are in Cherokee syllabary, a writing system devised by the silversmith Sequoyah. The syllabary is comprised of eighty-five characters, each representing a syllable in Cherokee.

Most of the syllabary materials were written by Cherokees in the late nineteenth century.

The collection includes public notices, censuses, medical formulae, botany records, traditional dance songs, and stories. Among several volumes of correspondence there are letters written by Cherokees serving as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. "The syllabary materials are very important," says Jerry Wolfe, a native Cherokee who gives presentations on Cherokee history and culture at the museum. "It's our identity."

The museum team will create a digital version of the syllabary to be translated and studied by Cherokee elders and language students in North Carolina. Elders will offer interpretations of archaic vocabulary unfamiliar to modern scholars, and audio recordings will be made to document pronunciation. Eventually, full translations of the material will be available online and through the archives of the Cherokee museum and the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland.

James "Bo" Taylor, archivist at the Cherokee museum and a registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, offers a ten-day language immersion course that project team members will be required to take before working with the elders.

"There's less emphasis on speaking, but rather on reacting-getting familiar with the language and the sounds," says Taylor. He conducts each one-hour session entirely in Cherokee, using props to illustrate his speech and forbidding students from taking notes.

Taylor describes Cherokee as a difficult language. Like other Iroquian languages, it has no bilabial stops-b and p consonant sounds. In all, Cherokee has only eleven consonants and six vowels. The length and pitch of a Cherokee vowel can affect its meaning, a characteristic not found in English.

Cherokee is a verb-based language, Taylor explains, which means that verbs serve as the foundations to which smaller units of meaning are added. …