Language Crisis: The American Indian Reality

In the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a few more elderly native speakers of Cherokee silently pass away every few months. A language spoken for at least three millennia in the region faces extinction. The estimated 250 remaining native Cherokee speakers comprise less than two percent of the 13,000-member Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in the western highlands of North Carolina. This is not an uncommon plight -- it is the norm for American Indian Languages. The world's overall linguistic diversity decreased by an alarming 20 percent between 1980 and 2005, but linguistic diversity among indigenous North American Indian languages declined by an astronomical 60 percent during the same 25 year period.

As the voice of Cherokee vanishes in the Appalachian Mountains, the outside world is likely to overlook one of the most amazing stories of literacy ever witnessed. In the early 1820s, the Cherokee Sequoyah developed a writing script for the language -- a syllabary compromised of 85 symbols, one for each syllable sound in the language. Sequoyah's development in the early 1820s used 85 symbols--one for each syllable sound in the language. By 1830, less than a decade after it was introduced, three-fifths of the Cherokee were literate, growing to about 90 percent by 1850. This achievement made the Cherokee the most highly literate group in America at the time. In fact, America as a whole did not achieve this level of literary until 1910 -- more than a half-century later.

Using the syllabary, the Cherokee began printing a newspaper in 1828 called the Cherokee Phoenix, published in both Cherokee and English, the first by any American Indian group and the first written in an American Indian language. It also happened to predate the New York Times (1851) and the Washington Post (1877).

The death of the Cherokee language in the mountains of North Carolina is imminent--unless there is drastic intervention with the youth. That is why the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opened the doors of Atse Kituwah Academy in 2008, a full immersion program for children from early preschool through grade 5. The entrance to the classroom area boldly announces "English stops here!" The 70 children now enrolled in the academy learn the syllabary as readily as English speakers learn the alphabet, and sound out each Cherokee word more efficiently than English-speaking sounding out the highly irregular English alphabet. And current technology is an essential component of the process, with Cherokee syllabary keyboards for computers, tablets, and mobile devices. Let's face it, if you can't text in Cherokee, why bother?

The efforts by educators with native speakers, linguists, curriculum developers, and preservationists are intense and extraordinary, but is it worth the effort? Cynics doubt that so-called "revitalization efforts" can succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds from the surrounding, dominant culture, while others might see language death and dominance as an inevitable part of history. But history, culture, and science are lost whenever a language dies, and death is certain for Cherokee in the Smoky Mountains if no programmatic effort is made to pass it on. The documentary First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee, produced by Neal Hutcheson and Danica Cullinan with members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, tells the story of the people and the programs that attempt to preserve one of the most exceptional stories in the language history of American Indians.