February 3rd, 2021 Last Updated on: February 5th, 2021
Imagine being in a culture that feels like it's slowly disappearing.
For many members of the Cherokee tribe, they don't have to imagine. As COVID-19 continues its historic onslaught, the Cherokee tribal population has taken a hit, thus threatening the Cherokee language like never before.
Native American communities are being disproportionately affected by the illness. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis based on 14 states found that the cumulative incidence of lab-confirmed COVID cases among American Indian and Alaska Native persons was 3.5 times higher than among non-Hispanic Whites.
Some communities are geographically isolated, many families live in multi-generational homes, while some living below the poverty line have less access to the healthcare and nutrition that they so desperately need. Natives living in homes without electricity are less likely to know what is going on around the world. And without knowledge of the specifics surrounding COVID, they have a difficult time keeping themselves safe and healthy.
How bad is it?
“We have very limited data right now because of lack of surveillance systems, but we are hearing disproportionate level of severity of health impacts from coronavirus, a higher need for intubation and ICU-level care and more severe stress,” said Laura Hammitt, an associate professor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Washington Post.
People in these communities feel invisible and discounted. And that is how those in the Cherokee community are feeling today.
Before the coronavirus hit the Cherokee, only about 2,000 tribal members remained that could speak the language fluently, and many of these members are considered elders. Due to COVID-related deaths though, this number continues to dwindle.
What's being done to save the Cherokee language?
The tribal government made a quick decision once they began to receive shipments of coronavirus vaccines: Cherokee-speaking individuals would be the first to receive the vaccine.
Image Credit: Public Radio Tulsa via Cherokee Nation
“When you lose a speaker and you're a tribe that has only 2,000 fluent speakers left, you've lost something that isn't just irreplaceable, as all life is, but is really a national treasure,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told CNN. “Whether they survive and whether they pass down their knowledge will help determine in a couple of generations if there is a Cherokee language left.”
An unintended benefit of vaccinating the Cherokee-speaking elders first is that it helped to establish trust regarding the vaccine. There is historical and systematic distrust between Natives and the government. Allowing the elders to go first encouraged younger generations to have less anxiety and doubts about the vaccine.
“As a Cherokee speaker, there's probably less than 2,000 speakers left like me that's alive on the face of this earth,” John Ross, a 65-year old Cherokee, told CNN. “They want to keep us as long as we can because we try to help out to preserve our language to the young ones or whoever wants to learn.”
As more Cherokee-speaking individuals are able to get vaccinated, the risk of the language going extinct decreases.
But how do tribal members plan to keep the Cherokee language alive?
Well, various Cherokee language immersion schools were already formed and several more are popping up, including Cherokee Language Immersion School and Immersion at the New Kituwah Academy. The soon-to-launch Durbin Feeling Language Center, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, will house a Cherokee language Master-Apprentice Program, the Immersion School, and a translation center all in one. The community is excited for the complex to open.
Renissa McLaughlin is the Manager of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program as well as the Director for the New Kituwah Academy Early Childhood.
“The translation process for complex terms makes it difficult to create materials for the upper grades,” McLaughlin said. “However, we re-focused instruction and have students work on conversational Cherokee as opposed to academic content. Our mission is to have students be conversationally fluent, so in order to meet that goal, we changed our focus and students work on conversation and grammar.”
While there's reason for cautious optimism, at the end of the day, Cherokee tribal members must continue to take action and be vigilant during this difficult time. When the pandemic comes to an end, who's to say there won’t be something else equally jarring to confront these Native communities? Thankfully, they'd already started the process of preserving the Cherokee language long before the pandemic, and the virus has given them even more reason to fight for their lives, but also to fight for their culture.
Tim King, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a fluent Cherokee language speaker, receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Image Credit: Mike Simons/Tulsa World
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