WCU supports development of Cherokee immersion schools

Western Carolina University is partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on a multi-year initiative designed to produce a new generation of fluent Cherokee speakers.

New Cherokee language immersion schools will be developed on the Qualla Boundary, commonly known as the Cherokee Reservation, in which teachers will communicate with students in the Cherokee language. Meanwhile, Western will expand the curriculum for a Cherokee language and education program.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation directed $458,000 this year to support the initiative’s first phase, which includes staffing and planning for the new Cherokee Language Academy. More than $200,000 of those grants will enable WCU to hire a language program developer who is a linguist, and a Cherokee language and community coordinator who is a fluent Cherokee speaker.

The new university staff members will develop language courses and certification programs, recruit students to be teachers and create a Kituwah Teaching Fellows Program. The goal is to not only help revitalize the language but also support those immersion schools with training high-quality teachers fluent in the Cherokee language.

“We want to identify Cherokee speakers who can become certified teachers,” said Carrie McLachlan, coordinator of WCU’s Cherokee studies program.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation reported this year that a recent survey, conducted by the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program and assisted by Western sociologist Kathleen Brennan, found 72 percent of fluent Cherokee speakers are over age 50, and the figure concerns Tom Belt, who works part time at Western.

“The Cherokee language will die out within several generations if something is not done,” said Belt, who as an elder-in-residence at WCU mentors and advises students in addition to teaching the Cherokee language.

The majority of those interviewed as part of the survey reported that maintaining the language was very important and recognized that the Cherokee language is dying out. There are an estimated 420 speakers who reside within the Cherokee communities.

“Without the language, many traditions and history would be lost,” said Renissa Walker, manager of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program.

Ben Frey, a WCU graduate student and assistant as well as a member of the Eastern Band, is developing an entire Cherokee language class using the principles used to design classes in other modern languages, such as English. Frey is integrating grammatical knowledge gained from linguistic research to create a set of language “rules” to help Cherokee language students. His ideas include creating puzzle pieces that help students put words together and developing a Cherokee computer game that will teach the language.

“I want to give something back to the tribe,” Frey said. “Language is one of the most solid identifying features a group of people can have.”

For more information, contact Carrie McLachlan or Tom Hatley at (828) 227-3841.