At the New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee, North Carolina, a sign above the entrance reads, “English Stops Here.”
Renissa McLaughlin manages the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina.
“English is what you would consider a cancerous language. It just devours other indigenous languages,” she says.
Two hundred and 29 million people speak English in the United States. Around 35 million speak Spanish, and roughly 3 million speak Chinese. But in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, there are only a few hundred people left speaking a language and dialect that was once heard across a wide part of the South.
This summer, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill allowing college students to get foreign language credit for Cherokee language classes. It’s one step in the struggle to preserve not just the language but the cultural identity of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Language just not just this novel thing that a couple of old people do on the side. It is the heart and soul of who we are as Cherokee people,” McLaughlin says.
By most estimates, there are less than two-to-three hundred native Cherokee speakers in the territory in western North Carolina. Many of them are old. Many of them are sick. And in twenty years, not many of them will be left. Gerald Schroedl specializes in archaeology, ethnography and ethno-history of the Cherokee at the University of Tennessee.
“Most people would say that if you lose your language, you have lost your culture or you are in great danger of losing your culture,” he says.
Of the five to six hundred American Indian languages once heard in North America, Schroedl says less than a third are still spoken today.
“And of those, there are only about 46 that are considered viable languages, in other words, there are enough adults and children learning the language that these languages are likely to continue,” he says.
In North Carolina, Michell Hicks is the Eastern Band’s Principal Chief. He’s heavily invested in creating native speakers. Hicks says the New Kituwah Academy is part of a bigger initiative to save the language from extinction. The tribe and other funders have poured millions of dollars into language revitalization programs.
“You can’t put a dollar value to an effect of protecting your tribe and who you are, you just can’t put a dollar value on that. But it’s just something that each one of us as Cherokee members knows from our heart what it means,” he says.
Inside the school, every word spoken is supposed to be in Cherokee. The technique is called immersion, and at New Kituwah Academy, kids begin when they are a few months old. There are around 90 children enrolled through the fourth grade. Renissa McLaughlin says they’re in a race against time: Full immersion doesn’t work for every child and the curriculum doesn’t always work for every family.
“While we are hopeful and we have vision, the reality is that we are tapping out our resources. People are tired. We have teachers who have retired and come back out of retirement to do contract work, ” she says. “My mother is 69. And she does contract work.”
Bo Lossiah oversees curriculum at the New Kituwah Academy. And as a member of the Cherokee Language Consortium, Lossiah helps decide which words enter the modern lexicon.
“As a child, I remember going to family dinners and my grandfather having family members to speak just Cherokee with. Just Cherokee. That’s it. There was no English at all used,” he says.
“Even that much fluency in a household I would say is dying out. I just want to be a part of getting it back. I just want the whole community to understand who they are again,” he says.
Lossiah says he regrets not learning his own language and cultural heritage – what he calls “The Way” – from his grandfather when he had the chance. But he says he’s keeping his grandfather’s memory close by serving as a bridge between fluent speakers and future speakers.
“It’s just, it’s a sense of identity. And that seems like a whole lot of burden for such a few amount of students but it truly is, it’s a sense of knowing who you are, like the word Cherokee itself, that’s not who we are. We’re Ani-kituwah-gi, the people of Kituwah,” he says.
Lossiah says as long as there are speakers, there is hope: the language, like the Cherokee people, will endure.