The Bilingual U.S. – Cherokee Oklahoma

Not all immigrants to the Great Plains came joyfully in the pursuit of a new, free life, as did the Czech in their journey to Nebraska. The “settlers” who marched along the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma were Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chicksaw, Choctaw and other Native Americans who were forced by President Andrew Jackson to abandon their homelands in the Southeastern United States. The last of the tribes to be removed was the Cherokee, and their march along the Nu na da ul tsun yi, “The Place Where They Cried,” was particularly fatal, leaving 4,000 fallen along the way.

The survivors of the treacherous march of death settled in the Indian Territories in present day Oklahoma, and a capital of the newly united Cherokee Nation (some tribe members had voluntarily relocated to the Indian Territory 20 years prior) was established at Tahlequah, at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Here the Cherokee began a slow regrowth stunted by ideological differences on the incorporation of white customs into their culture and ravaged by the Civil War, which deepened the growing divisions between factions of the tribe.

The merging of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory in 1907 to found the state of Oklahoma ended any governmental dreams in Tahlequah, but no visitor can fail to notice that ᏓᎵᏆ (Tah-le-quah) has remained the capital of the Cherokee people. Street signs written in English, in Cherokee, and in Cherokee transcribed with Latin characters seem to welcome visitors to a foreign country, rather than a small city of 16,000 residents in the Sooner State.

The exotic characters of the Cherokee language were invented at the beginning of the 19th century by Sequoyah, a half-blood Cherokee who became fascinated by the white man’s ability to read from “talking leaves.” He spent a decade devising the Cherokee “syllabary” a combination of 86 symbols which represented all of the sounds in the Cherokee language. Sequoyah taught the written language to his daughter, Ayokeh, and impressed a group of Cherokee elders with a demonstration of the young girl’s “magical” ability to read.

Sequoyah is thought to be the only person to have ever single-handedly invented a system of writing, and to this day the Cherokee people reap the benefits of Sequoyah’s genius. Sequoyah’s syllabary was adopted in 1821 and spread like wildfire; within five years Cherokees had surpassed literacy rates among their white neighbors. The first Cherokee language newspaper, ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ (Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi- Cherokee Phoenix), came out in 1928, and by the time of Sequoyah’s death in 1843 more than four million pages of books, articles, and newspapers had been published in Cherokee.

Sequoyah’s gift of literacy to his people surely has helped the language to survive into the new millennium, but decades of oppression and discrimination have put it in dire straits.

In his State of the Nation Address in 2000, Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith addressed the importance of the language to his people: “The Cherokee language is the basis of Cherokee spirituality and wisdom…many tribal elders, medicine people and storytellers are now gone. Cherokee people may be only one or two generations from losing the language.”

The premonitions of Chief Smith were confirmed by a survey carried out in 2002 which found that only 17% of tribal members who live on tribal land speak Cherokee at home, that for only 18% is Cherokee a first language, and that all conversational, highly fluent, and master level speakers are over the age of forty.

The survey also found that 26% of those who grew up speaking Cherokee had stopped speaking the language at some of their lives, for the majority during elementary school. The Cherokee Immersion School was founded in Tahlequah in 2002 to address precisely this age group. After ten years of operation the school graduated the first class of students who from pre-school through eighth grade studied Math, Science, History, Art, and all other subjects except for English in Cherokee. For the proud Cherokee community in Tahlequah, these children are their future, those who will bridge the gap with the elderly storytellers who are passing away and who will fulfill the promise of Sequoyah’s gift.