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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

New Law Will Help Preserve Cherokee Language

Gwendolyn Glenn
Eastern Band Cherokee Nation

Last month, North Carolina General Assembly members passed legislation that will allow Cherokees without degrees or certification to teach the tribe’s language and cultural practices to native students. Eastern Band Cherokee officials say they don’t have enough licensed teachers fluent in their language to reach all students, and they fear it will die out.

There are about 15,000 Cherokees in the Eastern Band, but only about 180 are fluent in the tribe’s language. In 2004, there were more than 400 fluent speakers. Renissa McLaughlin, the tribe’s director of youth and adult education, said many have passed on or don’t have college degrees. 

“When you have a dying language and the population of your remaining fluent Cherokee speakers is over the age of 65 and don’t have degrees, you have to make allowances that will allow tribes to try to resuscitate and keep alive their languages,” McLaughlin said.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
The seal for the eastern band of the Cherokee Nation.

Under the legislation, the state superintendent would recommend teachers to the state board of education. If approved, they would be trained and teach only language and cultural classes.

“While this is groundbreaking for North Carolina, in Indian country this is a relationship that we saw already in other states that have federally recognized tribes with living language," McLaughlin said. "They had legislation at the state level and the tribes entered into MOUs (memorandum of understanding) with the state or their department of education."

McLaughlin said it took eight years to convince lawmakers to pass the legislation. She said one benefit of the legislation is that Cherokee language courses will be accepted in meeting college entrance requirements.

But to McLaughlin, the main benefit of the law is cultural preservation.

“For Natives across the country, saving the language is the last thing that we have that identifies us as a Cherokee," she said. "We are a group of people. It’s a birth right and having students understand [that] this is who you are."

McLaughlin is not sure when the language and culture teachers will be in classrooms. She said they are still working out the kinks with state education officials.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.