The Cherokee Nation has for decades actively worked to increase the number of fluent Cherokee speakers, which it sees as an essential component in preserving the rich heritage of the most populous American Indian tribe in the United States. Of the approximately 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, around 5% are dying each year and the population that is fluent is aging. 

Part of the challenge, according to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., is creating a demand for the language. That’s where a program for adults comes in. 

Six years ago, the tribe added a new component to its strategy, seeking adult learners to help revitalize the language. 

Known as the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, the initiative is intense: eight hours per day for a total of 40 per week for two years. 

Language is one of the things that makes the tribe uniquely Cherokee, Hoskin Jr. says.

“It’s what connects us back to time immemorial – that we can think about you know, a few generations back, our ancestors speaking it,” he says.

“Language is directly tied into the culture and values of the Cherokee people…We have been taught there are things that are lost in translations, a perspective that can not be translated into another language. Even the stories and experiences our speakers use to explain a word or phrase illustrate the values and culture they have experienced growing up.”

Sarah Oosahwee-Voss, Master Apprentice Program participant

In the Master Apprentice Program, participants are paid $10 per hour – not enough to get rich by any means, said Howard Paden, executive director of the tribe’s language department, but enough for participants to  focus on language efforts. (For context, minimum wage in Oklahoma is $7.25 per hour, while Cherokee Nation Businesses, the business arm of the Cherokee Nation, is $11 per hour.) 

Justin McBride, an assistant professor in the Department of Languages and Literature at Northeastern State University-Broken Arrow in Oklahoma, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation himself who grew up in the heart of the Osage Nation and was a linguist involved with the Kaw Nation’s language revitalization efforts. He noted that the Cherokee Master Apprentice Program is ambitious and demanding. But he added that it’s special for two reasons: it’s paid and it links together learners and people who are not only speakers, but are also culturally fluent in the heritage of the tribe.

The Language Apprentice program is growing. Since its inception about six years ago, program participation has quadrupled, with about 32 participants enrolled any one time when fully filled, Paden said. 

The program and its growth couldn’t come at a more critical time. In the last year, more than 100 fluent Cherokee speakers have passed away, some due to Covid-19, Paden said. 

Due to the coronavirus, the program meets online, with participants taking part in several online sessions each day. It’s been more challenging, noted Master Language Apprentice student Sarah Oosahwee-Voss, 37, because everyday conversations aren’t taking place as often as people stay home or remain physically distanced. Still, the Master Apprentice Program offers small-group sessions to connect with classmates and learn conversational skills. 

That team mentality is something Hoskin Jr. has made a priority during his tenure as chief, especially in terms of language revitalization efforts. In November, the tribe announced plans for a centralized language center that would house the Master Apprentice Program, immersion school and the translation department – all under one roof. It will be located in Tahlequah, where the Cherokee Nation is headquartered. 

The $16 million effort comes from business dollars, primarily casino revenue, Hoskin Jr. says. 

For Oosahwee-Voss, joining the program was a way to connect with her roots – her dad speaks the language and said his one regret was not teaching the language to his children while they grew up. 

But now, through this innovative, multi-year program, Oosahwee-Voss has a chance at learning the language fluently. 

“Language is directly tied into the culture and values of the Cherokee people,” she said. “We have been taught there are things that are lost in translations, a perspective that can not be translated into another language. Even the stories and experiences our speakers use to explain a word or phrase illustrate the values and culture they have experienced growing up.” 

Not only are the adult students learning the language, she said, but they are learning to change their perspectives. 

“Words in English, at times, cannot carry the strength or emotions – which help to create the values – of the Cherokee people within their language,” she added. 

For Oosahwee-Voss, honoring the Cherokee speakers who came before her is important, she said. 

“I just want to give it back to the speakers and my fellow classmates,” she added. 

One of the posters offered by the Cherokee Nation to help with language acquisition as part of its broader language learning program. The poster depicts basic food groups. (Source: Cherokee Nation)

Students may become teachers at local schools in the Cherokee Nation. Hoskin Jr. believes teaching and the arts will offer opportunities for Cherokee language speakers, but the key will be making sure they have the other skills necessary for those career trajectories in order to be successful. 

McBride said it’s likely never been easier to be a language learner of Cherokee. However, for all the resources the tribe is putting to keeping the language alive, he understands that some tribal communities do not wish to do so for various reasons, including costs and fear of it being used incorrectly, therefore potentially creating mistakes in customs. 

Still, McBride is grateful for the Cherokee Nation’s efforts. 

“I absolutely love hearing elders speak the language, and it gives me unspeakably great pleasure, for example, to sit at the table at a community meal and hear elders just carrying on a regular everyday conversation in the language,” he said.