TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee speakers from across the United States gathered with Cherokee Nation leaders Tuesday for a day-long celebration and grand opening of the tribe’s new, historic $20 million Durbin Feeling Language Center in the capital city of the Cherokee Nation. More than 2,000 attended the grand-opening ceremonies.
The 52,000-square-foot building in Tahlequah will house all of the Cherokee Nation’s growing Cherokee language programs under one roof for the first time, including the Tahlequah Cherokee Immersion Charter School, the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program for adult language learners, the tribe’s team of translators, and more.
“The Cherokee language has always been the heart and soul of the Cherokee people. It contains intricate ways of thinking and a traditional knowledge that can’t be found anywhere else,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “That is why we are so focused on and committed to our Cherokee language preservation and perpetuation efforts. As I have said time and time again, all of our accomplishments in business, economic development, health care, and education could never make up for the loss we would feel if we allowed our precious language to perish. Our friend Durbin Feeling understood this, and he dedicated his life to perpetuating the Cherokee language. Today, our Cherokee Language Department honors his legacy. As Chief, I am so proud to hear the Cherokee language being spoken more and more not just here in the Cherokee Nation Reservation, but also when I visit Cherokee community groups across the country. This is a direct result of Durbin’s vision to share and teach the Cherokee language, and the tireless commitment of our Cherokee language team who continues that mission -- because preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language is preserving and perpetuating Cherokee identity. This state-of-the-art language center will help us continue to act swiftly and decisively so future generations grow up in a country where Native languages like the Cherokee language are revered as the unique, cultural treasures they truly are.”
The language center is named in honor of the late Durbin Feeling, Cherokee Nation’s single-largest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah. Feeling was a renowned Cherokee linguist who wrote the Cherokee dictionary, added Cherokee Syllabary to a word processor in the 1980s, and started the process of adding the Cherokee language on Unicode, which today allows smartphones to offer Cherokee Syllabary.
A Vietnam veteran who earned a Purple Heart and National Defense Medal, Feeling developed hundreds of Cherokee language teaching materials that remain in use by speakers today. He authored or co-authored at least 12 books, contributed to countless research articles, and taught Cherokee at colleges ranging from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa to the University of California. He was named a Cherokee Nation Treasure in 2011 for advancing the Cherokee language.
“Being truly immersed in the Cherokee language on a daily basis is a concept Durbin believed in and spent so much of his life working on. We know the immersive approach works in helping perpetuate our culture and traditions,” said Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. “We’ve seen that success in our Cherokee immersion school for children, and in our adult apprentice program. This language center is the beginning of the next chapter in our language efforts and I can’t wait to see what the future holds. This will be the center of learning and growth for a new generation of Cherokee speakers, and it will be a blessing to the Cherokee people.”
It is estimated that there are only about 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers in the Cherokee Nation.
In 2019, the Council of the Cherokee Nation approved the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, legislation introduced by Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner to provide an initial $16 million investment into Cherokee language efforts. It is the largest language investment in Cherokee Nation history.
“In 2019 the Council and the Administration made a historic commitment with the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act. Today we see the most tangible and important impact of that law,” Council Speaker Mike Shambaugh.
The Durbin Feeling Language Center includes 17 classrooms, a library, an archive room, a gymnasium and playground, and other additions that will support the Cherokee Language Department’s efforts for decades to come. Everything inside the facility is written in the Cherokee Syllabary.
“This language campus is a signal to the world that they have woken a sleeping giant. It will be a beacon that stood upon a hill for the world to see for indigenous languages,” said Howard Paden, Executive Director of the Cherokee Language Department. “Here we will create a new generation of first-language Cherokee speakers. Our children will grow up beside first-language speakers. It will be a language campus that will change the world, our tribe, and the fight for our language. This is a battle for our heart, and we will win.”
Tuesday’s grand opening celebration included tours of the new facility, a hog fry and meal, and one of the largest gatherings of Cherokee fluent speakers in decades.
“I’m a sixth-grade teacher and I don’t think the students really knew the impact of what’s before them before they came over to see this new facility. Now that they’ve had a chance to see it, I think it’s going to do big things for them,” said Cherokee Immersion Charter School sixth-grade teacher Curtis Washington. “The kids are really going to immerse themselves here. This is a big start for making a generational impact in our language. I think it’s going to help us achieve wonderful things. I’m so proud of what has been done here and the impact it will have.”