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FIU Indigenous Peoples’ Day program highlights Cherokee language

The Cherokee Language Immersion Academy in Cherokee, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo)

Florida International University’s Global Indigenous Forum commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 11 with a
program which included a screening of “First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee,” an award-winning documentary about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian’s effort to save its language.

Rev. Houston Cypress (Miccosukee) hosted the event on Zoom. After the screening of the 56-minute film, two language experts and the producer of the documentary spoke about the film and larger issues about Indigenous languages.

The 2014 documentary follows members of the North Carolina-based tribe as they navigate the challenges of passing the language on to the next generation through its immersion school.

The film won the award for best public service film at the 2014 American Indian Film Festival, grand jury prize as best
documentary featurette at the 2015 Red Rock Film Festival, and best cultural documentary at the 2016 Midsouth Emmy awards.

The film describes the difficulty students have learning Cherokee as their second language since it has a unique syllabary unlike English and other European languages. A syllabary is a set of written characters representing syllables and serves the same purpose as an alphabet. Cherokee syllabary was created by Sequoyah in the late 1810s and early 1820s, making Cherokee a written language for the first time.

However, children in the Atse Kituwah Cherokee Language Immersion Academy are meeting with success. They begin as infants and attend until they reach middle school. The tribe is grooming them to be the ones to ultimately pass the language on to their children. For 60 years, the sound of children speaking Cherokee hasn’t been heard.

“When they learn the language, they are learning everything about the Cherokee people,” said Renissa McLaughlin, program director. “Without language, we lose the heart and soul of who we are as Cherokee people. If we shut our doors, the language will just be a list of vocabulary words from a dictionary. We’re running out of time because we are losing too many speakers.”

After the film, Cypress introduced the panel: Benjamin Frey, professor of American Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; María-Luisa Veisaga, director of the Andean Studies Program at FIU; and Walt Wolfram, renowned linguist and producer of the film.

Cypress posed some issues for discussion, starting with how language and land are interconnected.

“The language isn’t just the words, it’s the sound that is appropriate for that place,” Frey said. “Like birds who belong to a place.”

“Usually language goes with the territory, but now in 2021 with all the migration going on I have a different view of
that,” Veisaga said. “The only way to preserve it is to talk, talk, talk. You can survive with different languages, but the language of your territory is home.”

Cypress asked Wolfram what some of the challenges were as a linguist making the documentary.

“I’ve spent 50 years working in a variety of communities,” Wolfram said. “One reason we make documentaries is to make them accessible. If you know something is valuable to the community that served as the research for your work, you have an obligation to serve the community. It’s about working with the community, for the community on behalf of the community.”

About 40% of the film is in Cherokee. The Cherokee are now using the film to teach the language.

“When you speak and think in the language, you switch the way you see the world,” Frey said. “Sometimes things don’t
belong in the other language. In Cherokee, ‘I love you’ really means ‘I’m stingy with your existence.’ It’s protective.”

“Languages are so elastic and are a dynamic thing,” Veisaga said. “It’s a good time to revitalize it by creating a language that goes along with us. It’s up to the community, but that’s what usually happens to languages.”

Veisaga noted that she speaks Spanglish in addition to Spanish, English and her Native language. Frey cited an example of blending the language of technology into Cherokee, translating the word for computer into “electric brain,” which the elders didn’t like. Instead, they use the word meaning “it contains things.”

“Kids were talking about iPads, but they knew they weren’t supposed to say iPad, an English word,” Frey said. “So they translated it into Cherokee.”

Since the film was made seven years ago, many fluent Cherokee speakers have died leaving only 180 alive; most of those are over 65 and some have health issues. The emphasis on immersion has declined at the school. Now that it is accredited, it is subject to state regulations and exams which are administered in English. Frey believes
students are only getting a couple of hours per day in Cherokee.

The discussion also mentioned language apps, such as Rosetta Stone or Duo Lingo, and university language instruction of Cherokee for non-Native students.

“I consider it really valuable,” Frey said. “As far as I’m concerned, there needs to be someone who still speaks it. I wish that more of our own people would learn it, but if I come across someone who has an earnest desire to learn, I will teach them.”

Students study in an immersion classroom. (Courtesy photo)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at