WCU joins Cherokee language partnership

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, left, accompanies WCU Chancellor John Bardo as Bardo signs an agreement between Western Carolina, the Eastern Band, the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern (Okla.) State University to revitalize the Cherokee language.

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, left, accompanies WCU Chancellor John Bardo as Bardo signs an agreement between Western Carolina, the Eastern Band, the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern (Okla.) State University to revitalize the Cherokee language.

Chancellor John Bardo today (Thursday, June 5) committed Western Carolina University to joining a community-university partnership focused on revitalizing the Cherokee language.

“Language does more than allow us to communicate with each other. Language is how we conceptualize the world,” said Bardo, a sociologist by training. “I’m very excited that Western is a part of keeping alive what it means to be Cherokee.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State University, in Tahlequah, Okla. (capital of the Cherokee Nation) are Western’s partners in the effort. Bardo formally committed Western to the partnership by adding his signature to a memorandum of agreement between all parties. Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks accompanied Bardo during the signing, which took place during the fourth annual Language Revitalization Symposium in Cherokee, an event that Western helped plan and sponsor.

“The Eastern Band has enjoyed great relations with Western Carolina University,” Hicks said. “We’re starting to see universities really reach out and find ways for us all to help each other.”

The agreement acknowledges the Cherokee language as “a living, viable language” deserving of academic attention, and supports seeking “opportunities for faculty, staff, students and communities to advance the study of the Cherokee language, history and culture.”

“We are able to come together because we all have the same needs and goals,” said Hartwell Francis, director of Western’s Cherokee Language Program. Among the primary goals of the agreement are sharing resources and combining efforts in seeking outside funding for language projects. The partnership should help attract funding because funding agencies appreciate joint efforts between universities, and between universities and communities, Francis said. A Cherokee dictionary, shared teacher training and a “study abroad” experience between the EBCI and Cherokee Nation are among the first goals of the partnership.

As is the situation with indigenous groups worldwide, Cherokee people are in danger of losing their language as tribe members who are able to read, write and speak Cherokee grow older. By one estimate, only 309 of the Eastern Band’s 13,400 members are fluent in the language. The decline of Cherokee literacy beginning in the early 20th century is tied to – among other factors – federal boarding school education, which discouraged Native languages; increased mobility; intermarriage; and the rise of electronic communications.

Through annual funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which supports economic, cultural and environmental initiatives related to the Eastern Band, Western already is actively countering the language’s decline. Working with the Eastern Band’s preservation and education program, Western is developing curriculum content and training students to teach in the tribe’s Cherokee language immersion classrooms. Other projects include an online first-year Cherokee language course, offered for the first time in fall 2008; a Cherokee literature course for spring 2009; and Cherokee language children’s books used in the immersion classrooms.

For more information about Western’s Cherokee Language Program, contact Hartwell Francis at (828) 227-2303 or hfrancis@email.wcu.edu.