Language & Songs






I believe Cherokee is one of the world’s most beautiful languages spoken today, very gentle and melodic. To me, hearing it is like hearing the sounds of the waves of a deep blue lake washing over the gray stones along the shore, soft and rolling but coming from a deeper source...

When I was a little boy everyone I knew spoke Cherokee. When we went to the store or church or visiting neighbors, someone would always look at me and smile and say, “Siyo, tohitsu?” Hello, how are you? I would smile back and as I had been taught, say, “Osda, nihina?” I’m well. And how are you?

America’s Native languages are in trouble. Of the over 200 Native American languages spoken today, less than 20 are spoken by their tribal children and of these 20, only 5 are considered to be thriving by ethnological standards. In order for a language to thrive, it must reinvent itself in a way that embraces a changing world, inventing and reinventing words that capture changes and incorporate them into the culture. Luckily for the Cherokee people, our language is considered one of the five but even our language is threatened.

Tribal languages and customs in the United States and Canada faced near extinction for many reasons but in particular because of U.S and Canadian government-designed forced assimilation policies. Some of these policies remained active until the late 1960’s into the early 1970’s. One policy was particularly harsh…and effective…at assimilating the most vulnerable of the Native people, the children.

In the last part of the 1800’s and through the 1950’s, policies passed by the U. S. Congress and enacted for the “benefit” of America’s tribal people, strongly encouraged and often forced tribal children as young as four years old to attend government-run boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles from their tribes and families. My grandmother and mother were sent to such boarding schools.

At these schools, speaking Native languages was forbidden and called “uncivilized” and “backward”. Anyone caught speaking his or her tribal language or practicing any Native ritual met with cruel punishments ranging from scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush (my mother’s punishment) to being locked in isolation for days at a time to being beaten. However, learning “civilized” skills was encouraged. The skills that were taught included sewing and cooking for girls and repairing and plowing for boys and of course, learning to speak English for both.

When many of these children were able to return to their tribes, they either could no longer speak their tribal languages or were ashamed to do so. Additionally, the parents of these children received the message from the government loud and clear. In order for their children to survive in a “civilized” world they must learn to speak English and forget their tribal languages and customs. These parents had been told over and over again that these were only fragments of a dying people and had to be abandoned if their tribe, through their children and “civilization”, was to survive at all.

Native America’s tribal languages are treasures and those old ones who have maintained the gift of their tribal language and customs in spite of the hardships of doing so are treasures as well. These languages and people are not fragments of “backward” civilizations, but vestments of cultures thousands of years old, steeped in ancient thought that cannot be replaced. These vestments have survived to the present, surviving beyond the western world’s models of great “civilized” languages and cultures like as Greek and Roman.

If you are a tribal person, learn your tribal language to your best ability. If you speak your tribal language, teach someone else to speak. Parents and grandparents, teach your children who they are through their own language. The two greatest gifts we can receive from our elders and pass on to the next generation are identity and belonging.