Heading Down The 'Old Town Road' To Teach The Cherokee Language

Sep 25, 2019

Earlier this year, the three Cherokee tribes in the U.S., including the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western North Carolina, announced their language is in a state of emergency because of a shortage of fluent speakers. Efforts to reverse that have taken on many forms, such as at a summer camp in Graham County.

That’s where campers learned to sing this summer’s No. 1 song — in Cherokee.

“Old Town Road” by Lil NasX was undeniably the song of summer 2019.

But you probably haven’t heard it like this: 

“Sogwili agwatselino. Gvnvna datsikilvtani.” 

“My horse. I’m going to ride it to the road.” 

Almost 40 kids from 5 to 15 years old learned this song as a part of the Snowbird Cherokee Traditions Language Camp. Snowbird is a Cherokee community outside of the Qualla Boundary in Graham County.

Sara Snyder Hopkins is the director of Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Language Program. She’s the one who translated “Old Town Road” into Cherokee. That’s her singing: 

“Sogwili agikaha. Gayvhulo gadu. Agwalsgwetuga. Diyvgisdi dagiha”

“I have a horse. The saddle is on top. I am wearing a hat. I have spurs.” 

Her background is in ethnomusicology and Linguistic Anthropology. That means she studies the way music and language interact. 

"Any time you can get every kid in a room to sing along to something that is already very inclusive so this song definitely brings that spirit. Doing that in Cherokee and getting them to learn it in Cherokee is just icing on the cake,”says Hopkins.

Lil NasX’s song rose to song its iconic status after it was kicked off the Country Billboard Charts for “not being country music.” Billy Ray Cyrus disagreed and released a remix with the rapper. On the last day of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, NasX announced that he is gay. The song still stayed at No. 1 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. 

Lashaun Lambert is the executive director of the six-week camp.

“Here we are able to provide what Shirley Oswalt started 16 years ago and it’s very important for us to be able to teach the children their native language,” says Lambert. 

“They’re really excited to show what they’ve done to their parents,” says Brett Jones. He’s a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He started out as a camper when he was 12 years old with just nine other kids. Now he’s a counselor.

“They have certainly caught on a lot faster than they have in the past because it’s such a hit but now they’re singing it in Cherokee instead of English because of Sara, which is pretty cool,” says Jones. 

Jones and Hopkins both don’t like to say that the Cherokee language is dying. This evening’s performance of new songs is an example of how alive the language is, says Hopkins. 

“That’s a big part of what this camp is about. You’re making a play. You’re making songs and maybe they aren’t fluent, but you are using the language and that’s what’s important,” she says. 

The event starts with each age group showing off their language skills, such as reading the Cherokee syllabary. 

Then they all take part in a play telling the story of the Trail of Tears – when the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their land and taken to Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokee died.

A traditional flute is played and then the narrator introduces the story: 

“The family has only moments to gather their belongings. As they leave they are seperated by the soliders. Across our homeland families are similarly rounded up. The Trail of Tears has begun.” 

The kids' lines are all in Cherokee. In the audience a woman wipes away tears. She told me afterward she doesn’t speak Cherokee but watching her children re-enact the traumatic history of her people was moving. 

Leslie McEntire’s mother was Shirley Oswalt, who passed away last year. She started the Snowbird language program over 10 years ago.

“We’re just fulfilling her dream and without the language we aren’t Cherokee people,” says McEntire. 

McEntire doesn’t speak Cherokee but when her daughter Jaslin was born, she says, Oswalt only spoke to her in their native language. Jaslin’s been at the camp since she was 4. Now she’s 15 and is proud to be continuing the tradition.

“Just being able to continue the legacy is great and honoring my grandma,” she says.

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