A New Generation of Cherokee Speakers Rises

Episode 30 of the America the Bilingual podcast

Among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, there are fewer than 200 first-language speakers of Cherokee. In Episode 30 of America the Bilingual, you’ll hear from people, both Cherokee and non-Cherokee, who are finding ways to embed the Cherokee language in classrooms and music, giving rise to a new generation of Cherokee speakers in the process.

But is it too late?

Renissa McLaughlin with Adult Language Coordinator Micah Swimmer, on the grand marshal float of the New Kituwah Academy’s 2016 fall fair.

Voices in the podcast

Here’s Renissa McLaughlin, Director of Youth and Adult Education for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina:

“When you tell someone that their language is unimportant, you’re taking it away from them. It’s an emotional attack. Our speakers have an emotional attachment to the language that they held at bay for all these years when the boarding schools were saying, ‘you’re going to learn English.’

“When you ask, why is it important for children to learn the language — it’s not just about the child. It’s about the tribe. And being able to bring that happiness back.”

This is Kathy Sierra, Director of the Cherokee National Youth Choir in Oklahoma and a Cherokee language teacher:

“I would put my grandchildren anywhere so they can learn Cherokee. Thank God my children agreed with me.”

And Sara Snyder, Director of the Cherokee Language Program at Western Carolina University:

“The language carries so much information about culture and history. Even today, we’ve been learning about what these place names mean, and that ties to the history of that place. Without the language, we have no way of decoding that information, or having that information anymore. Having a living language means that you can still access that information in daily life.”

Charlotte’s Web, in Cherokee

Students at the New Kituwah Language Academy in North Carolina learn how to both speak and read Cherokee. That’s led to the need for more books written in Cherokee for the youngsters.

The students now have a cherished American classic to enjoy, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1899–1985). Myrtle Driver, who is Cherokee, devoted three years to the translation.

“She was so deep into that book,” said Sara Snyder. “The way she describes things gives a real Cherokee perspective and Cherokee consciousness. It makes it Cherokee in a way that’s really beautiful.”

Myrtle Driver is Renissa McLaughlin’s mother. Ask Renissa if it’s too late to save the Cherokee language, and she will tell you.

“It’s not too late. As long as there are still people that can speak the language, there’s still opportunity for the younger population.”

Hear the story and read the complete episode notes

Hear more about the resurgence of the Cherokee language in Episode 30 of the America the Bilingual podcast, “A New Generation of Cherokee Speakers Rises.”