What began as a request to translate “The Star-Spangled Banner” into Cherokee evolved instead into a new song, the “United Cherokee Nations Anthem,” which was recorded in a studio for the first time at Western Carolina University. The anthem opens with a translation of “O say can you see,” but then takes its own course into messages of strength and the desire for peace.
“It is our own anthem,” said Renissa Walker, manager of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Walker’s mother, fluent Cherokee speaker Myrtle Driver, wrote the lyrics, and Cherokee artist Paula Nelson put them to music. The anthem, a gift from them to all three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, was officially adopted by all three as their national anthem but was not professionally recorded until the Kituwah program partnered with WCU through the Cherokee Studies Program on a new initiative called Project Songbird, Walker said.
The program designed Project Songbird to record original songs in the Cherokee language to help teach and revitalize the language. In the first phase, the goal was to record a compilation of songs that would demonstrate the ability to write and record music for different age groups. The music selections included pieces about numbers, seasons, a flood and dancing, as well as the anthem.
Bruce Frazier, Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor in Commercial and Electronic Music, combined student and faculty horsepower with a subsidy from a Cherokee Preservation Foundation grant to the SMART initiative in order to record the music at a studio on campus.
“It was exciting to be part of something, which is a contribution to the culture of the Cherokee people in our area,” said Frazier, who was presented with a copy of the finished product this spring. “We wanted to use the university’s state-of-the-art equipment for instructional purposes and to help support economic growth in Western North Carolina. Recording original songs in the Cherokee language for children and others to learn the language helps fulfill our mission. Also, the ability to record Nelson’s version of the ‘United Cherokee Nations Anthem,’ which has been accepted, brought a very special light to the sessions.”
Nelson said recording the music is a dream come true. “We are trying to bring our language into this century,” she said. This CD is only the first of a growing number of projects directed at Cherokee language revitalization, said Carrie McLachlan, WCU Cherokee studies coordinator. Future phases of Project Songbird entail recording Cherokee language songs in musical styles from rap to reggae and national storytellers. Walker said they want to show young people that the Cherokee language is not just for the older generation. “It’s part of our identity,” Walker said. “Without our language, a lot of our old traditions and history will be lost.”
Project Songbird compact discs are available through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and its Web site, www.cherokeemuseum.org, and sold at the WCU campus bookstore. A music sample is available at www.wcu.edu/pubinfo/news/2006/CherokeeAnthem.mp3 (copyright Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, all rights reserved).
For more information, contact Bruce Frazier at (828) 227-2400 or Renissa Walker at (828) 497-1597.