For a few days this month, Cherokee Nation was the global center of the movement to save Indigenous languages. Language leaders from all over the world gathered in Tahlequah to kick off the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages. For the 10-year period from 2022 to 2032, all 193 countries of the UN have committed to supporting the language rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The multi-day event was a combination of in-person dialogue on our reservation in northeast Oklahoma and virtual presentations from around the world. It was a unique opportunity for Indigenous leaders to collaborate, learn from each other and promote effective language-saving initiatives.
The effort grows out of the 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages, a celebration the UN successfully sponsored two years ago. I was privileged to speak before the UN about Cherokee Nation’s efforts at the time. That year was a good beginning of this worldwide effort, but it also showed world leaders how much more work must be done to preserve Indigenous languages and language rights over the long term.
Cherokee Nation hosting this summit reflects how we have built a preeminent model for Indigenous language programs. Without doubt, Cherokee Nation is home to one of the best and most creative language departments in the world, which supports the master-apprentice program, Cherokee Immersion School, the translation team and many other services. It was a huge honor for our employees to help plan this historic gathering and share our successes with other language warriors.
We are all working together toward the same goal, and the summit was a way to learn from successful programs around the world that are actively creating new speakers in their respective languages. We could share the best practices that have been discovered through trial and error. I am excited to see the new ideas and inspiration that our Cherokee language experts take away from this gathering.
This collaboration is urgently need. According to language experts, one of earth’s 7,000 languages is dying every two weeks on average. The Cherokee language is in a stronger position than many, but Cherokee Nation still only has about 2,000 fluent speakers left, and most of them are elders.
The Cherokee Nation has lost 134 fluent Cherokee speakers in 2021. We take a moment to pay our respect for these beloved speakers. Cherokee Nation’s thoughts and prayers are with each of their families.
“It saddens me to lose our Cherokee speakers and I take great pride in knowing the legacy they each leave behind not only to their family and friends but to their Tribal Nation as first-language Cherokee speakers. When we lose our language, we lose our identity, and their legacy reminds us that we must absolutely do everything we can to preserve the Cherokee language for future generations. Sadly, we know that Cherokee Nation loses more than a hundred Cherokee speakers per year, and with the current global pandemic in our midst, our elders speakers and our language have been even more at risk. To their families, on the behalf of the Cherokee Nation, we are truly sorry and know, that each will be sorely missed.” – Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Cherokee Nation: The Cherokee Nation lost 134 fluent Cherokee speakers in 2021
If the Decade of Indigenous Languages is a success, we will help bring sorely needed healing to a world. The most prosperous nations of the world grew wealthy from a campaign of colonization designed to exploit and exterminate Indigenous peoples, cultures and languages.
The modern world has come at a steep moral cost.
With this undertaking, the world is finally seeking to protect endangered languages and restore some of the cultural treasures that were lost. Our languages contain the wisdom of our ancestors, and it is in the interest of all humanity to save them.
A little over two years ago, Cherokee Nation passed the Durbin Feeling Language Act, which enabled us to make a historic $16 million investment in additional preservation measures. We are adding a new immersion school in Adair County, and we are in the process of creating a new language center and housing village in Tahlequah. This hub will be the home for all of our language programs going forward. Through our new Speaker Services program, we are also directing more tribal resources for housing, health care and general wellness services for our fluent speakers because we know protecting them is essential.
Late last year, we hosted the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at our Tahlequah immersion school. During that visit, they announced a $220 million agreement across numerous federal agencies working on Indigenous language programs. That agreement will be a cornerstone of efforts across Indian Country.
We know the greatest enemy of the Cherokee language is the passage of time and the fragility of human life. Our Cherokee language is key to our identity as Native people. It’s the chain that links us to our past, and it’s what binds us together today. Long into the future, may we look back on this decade to see that we revitalized the Cherokee language and other Indigenous languages across the globe.
Our hope is to see the Cherokee language used in more homes, communities, literature and media for every generation going forward.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.
is the 18th elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the largest Indian
tribe in the United States. He is only the second elected Principal Chief of the
Cherokee Nation from Vinita, the first being Thomas Buffington, who served from
1899-1903. Prior to being elected Principal Chief, Hoskin served as the tribe’s
Secretary of State. He also formerly served as a member of the Council of the
Cherokee Nation, representing District 11 for six years.