COVID-19 Puts the Cherokee Language In Jeopardy

COVID-19 Puts the Cherokee Language In Jeopardy
Tim King, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a fluent Cherokee language speaker, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center in Tahlequah on Thursday. On his left arm is a tattoo of a dream catcher with the word for his tribe in Cherokee.

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.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. (fourth from left) with staff and tribal officials with meals to be distributed to Cherokee elders.

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.

Featured Image 

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

6 Comments on “COVID-19 Puts the Cherokee Language In Jeopardy”

  • Avatar for Ingrid Dietlein

    Ingrid Dietlein


    Is it possible to help by donation? I think it would be a great loss and would make this Earth so much poorer if Cherokee and all the other threatened languages disappear. A language is the mirror of the thoughts of many generations and thus a kind of monument to all those that lived before us. So I really would like to donate to one of the projects preserving the Cherokee language. Can somebody help point me to where I could make a useful donation?
    Stay safe and sound and take care!

  • Avatar for J. Muro

    J. Muro


    As a longtime searcher for my Chiricahua Apache language and more, discovered that there are some apps that encourage the learning of Native American Indian (NAI) languages such as Memrise (Cherokee is one of them), and Duolingo (Navajo), and a few more others. There is a wonderful website that shares more information on about many more helpful apps that has a lot of the NAI languages to practice. Happy searching and learning for those who are curious.

  • Avatar for J. Muro

    J. Muro


    As a wandering, lost, and curious Chiricahua Apache, have been searching high and low for their language. There are a few online if one can find it closely. There are a few apps that do teach Native American languages, such as Memrise, Duolingo, etc,…one suggested place to search for a few is: The Ultimate Guide to Indigenous Language Apps on Please check it out and enjoy. Hope this helps?

    • Avatar for Jennifer Summer

      Jennifer Summer


      Thanks J Muro. When I find my info on chiricahue apache contact me [email protected]. I have a good sense how travel was into other tribes thru viewing Jaguar Birds intensive collection on iTunes. Jennifer

  • Avatar for Marie



    We have no one to teach us our language in Apache we do not live on reservation we found out we were Apache when our grandparents and parents passed away

    • Avatar for Maureen Ramage

      I read the article on the Cherokee people living in a native American coummintey . It made me cry. I do not have alot of money but I would like to help in some way. My husband greatgrandfather was an American indain ,fox tribe so we often have conversation about how they were treated and still are. I to found native American in my family by researching my ancestors but did not show in my d .n
      A but it did in my husband. My 8th great grandfather Johann philibus Kaes only survived because of his friend the Delaware native American chief. So I realy would like to help .

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