Hold Your Tongue: The Cherokee Save Their Culture, One Syllable at a Time

Books Features Cherokee Indians
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It seems that everyone in the American South has a Cherokee grandmother.

“We never hear about the grandfathers, just the grandmothers,” laughs a woman with high cheekbones at the welcome center in Cherokee, N.C., after I conspiratorially relay some of my genealogy only to realize it sounds cliché. It’s too bad I forgot to bring the grainy snapshot of my foremothers weaving baskets and looking shamanic in their braids. Of course, other visitors have no doubt thrust similar photos in front of my greeter’s eyes.

After centuries of near-genocidal repression and poverty, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee is now channeling its casino money into a cultural renaissance that high-minded boosters predict will turn the dilapidated resort known as “Little Las Vegas” into the “Santa Fe of the East.” Judging by the changing mood inside the Qualla Boundary (as the tribe calls this misty, 57,000-acre homeland), such claims are not all talk, though the value of talk should not be underrated. “English Stops Here,” warns a red, octagonal sign at the Dora Reed Tribal Childcare Center. In this pre-kindergarten immersion program, even the toy blocks are etched with the tribe’s ornate lettering instead of the forbidden ABCs. For eight hours a day, about 30 students—from newborns to four-years-olds—burble exclusively in their ancestors’ tongue. It’s a cheerful rebuke of the institutionalized sadism of the old American-Indian boarding schools.

“I grew up speaking only Cherokee,” Arneach Walkingstick, a 61-year-old teacher, whispers in English, briefly breaking the rules out of students’ earshot. “When I first went to school and tried to talk to my teacher, she just kept shaking my shoulders and yelling angrily into my face. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I still remember her teeth, the back of her throat. I became pitifully shy and preferred being outside, where I wouldn’t have to talk to nobody.”

Now, Walkingstick takes the floor like a born orator. In a few years, organizers hope, English will be spoken only in foreign-language class through 12 grades at the Kituwah Academy (just as it’s been shrunken into subtitles beneath the bold Cherokee glyphs on several local storefronts). You can also expect a growing library of fiction from the Yonaguska Literature Initiative, which recently produced a monumental translation of author Charles Frazier’s Trail of Tears epic Thirteen Moons, the first novel ever published in an American-Indian language. Tourists—at times bewildered by Sequoyah’s 85-character syllabary as it now echoes proudly through the valleys—might start rethinking America’s immigration debate (from the long view), and conclude that what’s at work in Cherokee is a necessary Nativism in the truest sense of the word.

Before these language initiatives began three years ago, a survey found that only seven percent of the Eastern Band’s 13,400 members were fluent speakers, with an average age of 53. “We do not separate language from culture,” says Renissa Walker, director of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program. “I asked my mother, who is fluent: What happens if we lose our language? She answered, ‘We lose ourselves.’”

When Frazier—who tripped over his share of arrowheads while growing up in nearby Andrews, N.C.—was writing Cold Mountain, he came across an intriguing real-life character. “I read about an old, old man in a mental institution who at times would speak only Cherokee,” Frazier says, referring to William Holland Thomas, the tribe’s white chief who helped many of his adopted people avoid the forced removal in 1838 and stay in the southeastern mountains. “I thought fictionalizing his story might help me explore the culture of these people who had lived on the land not so long before mine.”

Frazier presented the result, Thirteen Moons, in a tribal meeting before publication.

“I told them it might bring some attention to them,” he says. “If they did not like the book and didn’t want to be implicated, I would try to deflect the attention as much as possible. But if they liked it, I wanted to see how it might bene?t them.”

Before the powwow was over, Myrtle Driver, an outspoken elder, had volunteered to translate the text, and the Yonaguska Literature Initiative was established at the Museum of the Cherokee to produce more books in the language. The deciding factor, she says, was that the book inspired something not often associated with the Trail of Tears: laughter.

“We find humor in every situation,” says Driver, who customarily addresses every friend as “goober.” “If you walk into a Cherokee home and they don’t start picking on you, you best pack up and leave because they don’t like you. Cutting up and laughing at each other—that’s how we show affection, how we heal. Humor popped up at the right moments in the book.”

Driver frequently joins Frazier for lively, bilingual readings of Thirteen Moons. One crowd-pleasing passage involves the noises a chief makes during lovemaking. For dramatic effect, Driver imitates the animals his groans evoke: “boar hogs rooting in the ground, groundhog whistles, buck snorts, crow calls.”

“She always gets more laughs than I do,” Frazier says.

This drollery tempers the overall cultural reclamation as the town strives for greater authenticity in its attractions—a pottery guild, a downtown facelift with traditional stonework, and high-end art instead of plastic tomahawks made in China. Several institutions have joined forces in a marketing effort that employs the Anikituhwa Warriors, who glower in their war paint from billboards and ads with menacing captions such as, “We’re looking for you.” It makes for imagery that, as Driver might say, messes with folks.

“We dug into our history books to get the details right,” says Jeff Goss, whose advertising agency designed the campaign, which has doubled the number of visitors at the heritage-related attractions. “The Cherokee, in addition to this rich, fascinating history, consistently engage with humor, which is always a good selling point.”

“They had a word for a hog bite,” muses the narrator in Thirteen Moons. “Not two words, one word. Satawa. My opinion was that if hogs are biting you so often that you have to stop and make up a specific word for it, maybe lack of vocabulary is not your most pressing problem.”

Or maybe it is.