'I Think the Most Important Part of Being Cherokee Is the Language'

In 1838, the Cherokee Indians were forced to give up their land in the eastern United States and migrate to what is now Oklahoma. Over 4,000 died on the journey known as the Trail of Tears, but some Cherokee remained behind, hidden in the mountains of Appalachia. They survived as a people, and they are now taking steps to see that their language survives as well. VOA's Susan Logue visited the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.


Cherokee language class in North Carolina
Cherokee language class in North Carolina
Six young children - four girls and two boys - sit on the floor looking up at their teacher seated in a chair. An older woman with streaks of gray in the long, straight hair pulled back from her face, she holds up flashcards with colors and words spelled out in distinctive lettering. Her students are learning Cherokee, the language of their ancestors, but a language many of their own parents didn't speak as children.

RENISSA WALKER: "I'm still learning. I'm a second language learner."

Renissa Walker is in charge of the language, history and cultural preservation program for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

RENISSA WALKER: "It's a very, very difficult language. In Cherokee, there are so many verb tenses and tones and inflections."

Cherokee also has a unique syllabary with 85 characters, each representing a syllable. It was created by a tribal member, Sequoyah, and adopted by the Cherokee in 1825. Walker says, like many languages, Cherokee is not always easily translated.

RENISSA WALKER: "There are appropriate ways of Cherokee living that are embedded into the language. Because we don't use the language in everyday living, because there isn't the trans-generational passing of the language down to children, those appropriate ways of Cherokee living are lost."

Like Walker, Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is among those adults learning Cherokee.

CHIEF MICHELE HICKS: "My grandmother was fluent. My dad understands. He speaks some, but he only taught in bits and pieces, so that is how I learned. I'm still learning. I'm not fluent, but I know a lot of phrases, I know a lot of words."

Chief Hicks has made language instruction a priority of his administration. The tribe estimates there are three hundred fluent speakers among the population of fourteen thousand. The majority are under five or over fifty, like Renissa Walker's mother, Myrtle Driver:

MYRTLE DRIVER: "I think the most important part of being Cherokee is the language. When I speak my own language, I'm speaking from the heart. When I'm speaking English, from here."

Driver brings her finger to her temple as she says this. She was raised by her grandparents, who would not allow her to speak English in the home. Her daughter Renissa was raised by a white family. Driver says, at the time, it seemed the best choice for both her and her daughter.

MYRTLE DRIVER: "In order for me to go to school so I could provide for my children, I had to put her with a trustworthy foster home, and she liked it. Even though I wanted her to know who she was, that she was Cherokee. She had an advantage being in that foster home, with education. She has a far superior education than most that grow up around here."

But schools have improved here. A 1988 law gave American Indian tribes the authority to establish casinos on their lands. Much of the money that comes from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian's casino is funneled into education, including language classes.

When she thinks of the young children learning Cherokee today, Myrtle Driver is optimistic about the future of her tribe and its language. To ensure that generations to come would have literature to read in their language, she translated into Cherokee a portion of Charles Frasier's novel "Thirteen Moons." It tells of the forced migration of the Cherokee people in 1838.

MYRTLE DRIVER: "He wrote it as if he experienced it. He wrote about some of the things that actually happened to the Cherokee people. Now we have our immersion children that will one day read it, and they will read it in the Cherokee way, as if grandma were sitting there telling them what actually happened."

They will read it with their hearts as well as their minds. Susan Logue, VOA News, Cherokee, North Carolina.