Keepers of the Flame: Reigniting the Cherokee Language and Culture

“My husband did not want me to speak Cherokee to our daughters,” says Sarah Smoker, an elder in the Cherokee community. “I would try to sneak in some Cherokee when he wasn’t listening.”

Smoker now visits New Kituwah almost daily to interact with the children.

“Being Cherokee is not only about language. It’s also about learning the dances, telling stories, and spending time outdoors.”

Smoker smiles sweetly while sitting in a rocker, with one or two children resting in her lap, telling children stories from her childhood: playing in the creek looking for crawfish, or gathering ramps, wild ginger, dandelions, and chicory from the forest. Because the school backs up to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the children can sometimes look out their classroom window and view a visiting elk or deer, but more often they see the resident groundhog. And the most common first word for the children is yonah, the Cherokee word for ‘bear.’

“They like it the most because we say the word and then we growl afterwards,” says Kelly Murphy, the lead teacher for the two-year-old class,.

Once a week, Murphy takes her children outside to teach them how to grow vegetables in the school garden or identify medicinal herbs in the nearby woods. Murphy grew up in the Cherokee community and attended Cherokee High School. In school she took Cherokee to meet her foreign language requirement.

New Kituwah school keyboards include the English alphabet and 86-letter Cherokee syllabary.

“The class only taught me the very basics,” said Murphy. “And I hated that I couldn’t speak to my grandmother in Cherokee. But then I started to volunteer at New Kituwah, and I decided that if the babies could learn the language, then so could I.”

At age 21, Murphy is the youngest teacher at New Kituwah and one of the very few Cherokee of her generation who can speak Cherokee.

Old traditions and new technology are woven together at New Kituwah. The hallways have posters of popular children’s movies, but the titles are in Cherokee. The computer lab has new Apple computers, but the keys each have at least two symbols to account for the 86 letters of the Cherokee syllabary. Children gather in a circle to perform the quail dance and bear dance, then Skype with students at the Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school.


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