TULSA, Oklahoma — When it comes down to preserving Indigenous culture, nothing speaks louder than the fight to protect native languages.
"When tribes are talking about saving their language they're really talking about saving their culture,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Principal Chief Cherokee Nation. “They're really talking about something existential. If we lose this link to our past, and the language is the most vital link to our past, it's what we carried in memorial, we'll really see something severed that we really can't fully repair."
At Cherokee Immersion School, kids are taught the Cherokee language. The school is made up of trailers that used to be for casinos. Each child must only speak Cherokee and be called by their native name.
The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest tribes in the country with about 440,000 citizens. However, there are only 2,000 fluent speakers, most of them elders in their 70s who are teaching the language.
The tribe says they lost more than 80 fluent elders during the pandemic.
"I lost a brother to COVID and, of course, he was a speaker, and just recently lost another brother who spoke,” said Meda Nix, an elder speaker who also teaches at the Immersion School. “It's very hard. That's why it's very important for elders and teachers to keep this language alive. We lost so many speakers, elderly people recently due to the pandemic. Each day we lose a speaker, we lose the language. It's really important that we keep the language alive, and we're doing that through our children."
"What does it mean to be any longer to be part of a distinct Indian nation if you have lost something so central to who you are,” Hoskin Jr. wonders. “Even if you don't speak the language, it's still part of your central identity that you belong to a people who has a unique language. So, that's why you see this movement across the country and that's why we are putting so much into saving the Cherokee language."
The Cherokee Nation established the Durbin Feeling Language Center.
It will house all of the Cherokee Nation’s growing language programs under one roof, costing $20 million. It's the largest language investment in Cherokee history.
"All of that means we are creating a language community,” Hoskin Jr. said. “We are next door to a really innovative speakers’ village where elders are living independently in quality housing right next to this language center. Not only do we have a place that's a sterile classroom this is a place where the language is spoken organically. That's how we are going to save this language."