“U li si a ge yu tsa, my granddaughter, the mountains that surround us today were carved by Su li, Great Buzzard in the sky” I watched the old man hold his granddaughter Jaya on his lap as he pointed to the sky. “But u du du, grandfather, where were we?” The man with ginger root palms chuckled. “We have always been here, A ge yu ts, just like A tsi lv, fire that burns within”. The little girl pressed her hand to her grandfather’s chest. Just like the fire that burns within.
Language is power. Language is the arbitrary vocal symbols we use to encode the experience of the world. It is one of the fundamental behaviors that makes us human. The way we communicate can bind us together or can set us apart. But how is it that something as valuable as human connection can separate us? It is through historical and geo-political contexts that can make one language powerful than another. The saga of colonialization was the manifestation of linguistic power politics. When I visited Cherokee Reservation, North Carolina for research, I became aware of the sheer power of words. Power of language, although historically steeped in the ethnocide of a people, now is a glimmer of hope. Emerging from the darkest periods of American history lay the ingenuity, hope, and fight for language revitalization. This is Ka no he lv s gi, the story of Jaya and my her family’s fight for language reclamation.
The story of Native American language is historically one of heart break. During the 1800’s Indian youth were forced to attend anglo boarding schools in order to “kill the Indian and make a man”. Jerry Wolfe, Jaya’s grandfather told me how when he was a five years old, he was forced from his family to live in a boarding school. “They did not let me speak Cherokee. They cut my hair. They made me wear White man’s clothes. When I spoke to my cousins in Cherokee, they made us wash our mouths with soap. To be Indian was considered A s ga ni, sin. We were constantly bombarded with images that read ‘Speak American’ or ‘Kill the Indian Make a Man’. They reminded us of the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of our ancestors. They told us it was for the better. We were convinced that we were half animal until we spoke English with fluency and lived a ‘White lifestyle’. When I came home to my parents in my navy blue uniform, my mother and father would say: ‘where is my son? They brought back a white man. Where is my son?’ The Indian in me was dead. I spoke English. Unlike my father’s childhood, I did not hear my grandfather’s stories and wisdom. I was too White to understand the ancient ways. We stopped speaking Cherokee”. I could see pain behind his eyes. But it did not end there.
In the 1950’s, boarding schools shut down across the United States yet the mentality that Native meant ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘heathen’, ‘dirty’, ‘drunken’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘ignorant’ was still prevalent in American society. Native American students were taught in anglocentric public schools that enforced the stereotypes of indigenous people. By anglocentric, I mean that although the institution did not intentionally attempt to eradicate native culture, the education system lacked the understanding of the cultural discrepancies between Indian and prominent American culture and neglected the needs of native students. The majority of teachers on the reservation were White. Although a hierarchy was not stated, it was quite visible as to which ethnicity was perceived to have a more dominant, intellectual voice. Rose, Jaya’s mother recalled the constant bullying in schools: “I remember when a White teacher yelled at us one day after we played a practical joke on her: “you will all become drunks one day!” That’s when my brother dropped out of school”. The structural violence that the Cherokee people underwent hurt me and confused me. How did the people survive I thought as my heart grew heavy.
Jerry took my hand in his: “I want to make sure they know our history is larger than the Trail of Tears and the forced displacement of our people. If 12,000 years of Cherokee history spanned over 24 hours, the Trail of Tears would last only five minutes. We live on.” In 2004, New Kituwah Academy opened in hopes of keeping Cherokee alive. The school is the first language revitalization program in in North Carolina. New Kituwah predominantly teaches children from the age of 2 to 6 with the synthesis of the elders’ wisdom and cutting edge technology. Children learn about their heritage through apple products that are inscribed in Cherokee. New Kituwah also hosts adult classes so that parents can speak Cherokee to their children. After school programs such as basket weaving, storytelling, and mentorships at the Cherokee Museum enable teens to learn and work in an academic setting for language revitalization. Jerry Woolfe has assisted students on presentations at the Smithsonian and has had students help him record the stories of elders who remember boarding schools. These efforts are recognized by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina. Students have the opportunity to intern for the tribal office. Language preservation is not an attempt for natives to return to pre-colonial ways, but to be mindful of history and identity flux from a native perspective. Immersion schools are determined to integrate native youth into American society with hopes that their students will be proud of their identity as American Indians while performing to their best of their ability in non-native United States. Jerry told me how proud he was of his students: “I am so thrilled to work with my students every day. When these little kids speak Cherokee to me, I am so happy. When I was their age, I thought Cherokee would die. But here I see Jaya speaking Cherokee. It makes me weep. They are our future. The children learn the true story of our history. For years, my daughter was taught that the Trail of Tears was our only history. But we are a people who have been thriving for millennia. I am here to be Grandfather. I am here to be A li s de lv di or support”. Jaya called to us in Cherokee: U lv, sister! Come see the buzzard!” She pulled me along the path as we giggled.
“You know, they say Cherokees were the known as a-dv-ne-li-s-gi, Great Orators? Great Orators …When my White school master years ago told me to kill the Indian in me, I did. I lost myself. Where to go? Then the Spirit told me: go back, go back to Cherokee and you will find yourself again. I did. I thank, U-ne-qua, The Great Grandfather for taking me back home. Taking us all back home. This is our fight. And soon, our students will fight with us and we will come together and prosper again. They will be our ambassadors outside the reservation. They will integrate: be proud of who they are and when asked speak about their identity as they prosper in the anglo world”.
Jaya, Jerry, and I saw the great bird spread its wings and flew over us. Over the mountains.
To Hi do- like a top, I am in in the center of my world.
I watched Jaya and her U du du walk away hand in hand. Jerry called back to me “We will be back. We always come back”.
I looked to the mountains. The mountains swallowed sky.