Chapter 25: Cherokee language

Note: Passages in this vignette that are spoken in Cherokee are noted but not translated in the transcript below

[Mandy Swimmer singing in Cherokee Language]

[Narrator] The isolation that contributed to the formation of some mountain dialects also helped Native Americans preserve their heritage in the rising tide of European culture.

[Mandy Swimmer] [Cherokee] [explaining the song she sung above] It talks about where the Indians used to use a cloth to make a medicine, when they used to had to have a cloth to put the medicine on. And that's what he's talking about on that song.

[Mandy Swimmer] Now let me set it right here. This is one a' my frog bowl.

[Mandy Swimmer] [Cherokee] That-that's that's I was making pottery (laughs)

[Herman Wachacha] And uh, my name is in the Cherokee language is [translates phrase into Cherokee] I'm all right. [translated into Cherokee] I worked all time. And that's the Cherokee language right there. [Cherokee] I'll see you again.

[Alfred Welch] [Cherokee] My youngest one, hat's all he knew when he first talked Cherokee, and he picked up English from these other kids, before he even started school.

[Mandy Swimmer] I speak all the time. I don't care if they didn't understand me, I get after 'em before I speak English (laughs) I said I always tell 'em I speak in Cherokee (laughs)

[Alfred Welch] Well I use Cherokee anytime I'm talking to a Cherokee, it don't matter where it's at (laughs). I'd rather talk Cherokee than English.

[Cherokee singing]

[Mandy Swimmer] Now me and my grandchildren, I talk to 'em in Cherokee and I name 'em with Cherokee names for myself so I can call 'em. They name these babies so hard names I h'aint never heard in my life! And I can't say their names, so I just name 'em myself an Indian name (laughs). Well that's the way it was anyway, long time ago, they had to, uh, name 'em an Indian name. Now they don't even know what their Indian name is.

[Narrator] Prior to colonization, the area that would become North Carolina was home to numerous native language groups, including Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Siouan language families. In 1870, the United States government established mandatory boarding schools for Indians across the country. Young Indians were forced to live apart from their parents in the federal schools. Their hair was cut, their clothes were replaced by school uniforms, and the use of their native language was punished severely.

[Part of "America the Beautiful" sung in Cherokee]

[Narrator] All of these children were assigned new English names.

[Myrtle Driver] They wanted to civilize us, I suppose. They were punished for being- you know, for speaking Cherokee so- I think that was when it became, uh, endangered, um. Of course, you know we feel the effects of it now, because there's so many that don't speak the language.

[Bo Parris] Every time someone that spoke Cherokee dies - there's been quite a few, more and more, as they get older - makes me feel kindly bad. So now, uh, we use it some here, not like we did. We only have one preacher that could preach Cherokee without any English, only one left. We had two and one died a few months ago.

[Mandy Swimmer] They did speak in Cherokee mostly all of 'em way back when I was growing up. They wasn't too-they wasn't too many people that speak in English, just a few of 'em, and you go to the home, they'd all speak in Cherokee. Everywhere you went. And now, you can't go nowheres and they'd say, "I don't know how to speak it."

[Male Appalachian speaker] Cherokee language is almost gone, there's probably less than 300 Cherokees that speak fluent Cherokee, you know. When I was a kid I was very much aware of that- that cadence in the craft shops. I worked in the craft shops down there, from the time I was fourteen, you know, it was probably against the law, clear up till when I graduated college, I'd go back in the summer and work down there in the summer when- when I was in college. There's an awful lot of fake Cherokees, now, guys making a good living pretending to be Cherokees and that are really extroverted or sorta show people. You can usually identify a fake Cherokee by his name. You know, if it's a beautiful name, "Floating Eagle Feather," you know, "Snow Bear," you know, beware, beware beware. Uh, because the Cherokee names, uh, there are some colorful ones, but what you hear more often is uh, "Tooni," uh, "Crow," "Big Meat," "Smoker," "Stomper," uh, "Swimmer," uh it doesn't, don't have the drama that people like in a colorful name, uh, "Princess Pale Moon," uh, oh look out! (laughs). Course there's a genuine effort in Cherokee to give you the true Cherokees, but lots of times tourists aren't interested in that, they want bloody tomahawks and scalping and they want, uh, uh, what they're accustomed to off the TV, they wanna see Deer Slayer, right there on main street, you know, and if you tell 'em the Cherokees were sophisticated and agrarian, they raised cotton, uh they had their own alphabet, syllabary, and their own newspaper back in the 1820s, uh they get bored, that's not really what they want. That's not the image they want.

[Cherokee singing]

[Jean Bushyhead] The Cherokee culture and language will survive because of the great emphasis that has been going on for the last five or six years. And I think that we are getting to the children at the right time. And that is, birth... on. Language is culture, and culture is language.

[Myrtle Driver] That's who we are. Our language is who we are. Once you start learning the language, it branches out to all other areas - history, culture, traditions. So, when they're learning the language they're learning, you know, everything about the Cherokee people as well.

[Beth Bolden] Not many of us can fully say things like the older people can, but we're learning, which makes it better.

[Harley Young] Not many people can say they have- they can speak two different languages, and I mean, especially a Native American language, and I think it's pretty- it's pretty cool that we- that- that's our heritage that we- we're learning our heritage.

[Pat Smith] And like, well no offense but if we see like, white people and start like, talking to each other about 'em, they don't know. I don't know, it's just kinda feels good to have our own language that nobody else can understand.

[Cherokee]

[Cherokee singing]

[Harley Young] All our elders know it, but, like, if we don't learn it-

[Beth Bolden] And they're gone then it's gonna be gone.

[Harley Young] Nobody knows it. So, if we don't learn it, nobody'll know it, and it's like our heritage is gone.

[Cherokee singing]

[Bo Parris] We've got some here yet, you know, speak Cherokee, in their 40s and 50s. No kids that speak Cherokee, but they're learning. They say the kids catch on quick.