TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation’s single largest contributor to the Cherokee language since that of Sequoyah — Durbin Feeling — has passed away at age 74.
Feeling, born April 2, 1946 just east of Locust Grove, was a renowned Cherokee linguist who wrote the Cherokee dictionary and worked for the tribe since 1976, most recently in the tribe’s language translation and technology department.
Some of Feeling’s accomplishments include adding Cherokee Syllabary on a word processor in the 1980s. He also started the process to add the Cherokee language on Unicode, which today allows smartphones to offer Cherokee Syllabary, and he developed hundreds of Cherokee language teaching materials that remain in use by speakers today.
“Durbin Feeling was our modern-day Sequoyah, a Cherokee National Treasure who was the very first person chosen to sign our Cherokee Language Speaker’s Roll because he was so cherished by our first-language speakers and entire tribe. Everything we are doing for language revitalization is because of Durbin,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Durbin was also a dear friend to me and First Lady January, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and want them to know how deeply sorry our entire Cherokee Nation family is for this tremendous loss.”
Feeling was a first-language Cherokee speaker not learning English until he started first grade at Little Rock School in Mayes County.
He learned to read and write Cherokee Syllabary at the age of 12. His dad was always sitting in the shade reading aloud songbooks or the New Testament.
Feeling credited his linguistic skills to standing near his father, watching him take out a pencil and guide him through root words in the Cherokee language.
From there he would launch a career authoring or co-authoring at least 12 books, contributing to countless research articles, and teaching Cherokee at colleges ranging from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa to the University of California.
“As Durbin called his language family to his bedside, he shared one final charge: ‘Everyday, just keep speaking Cherokee. If you do that, it will all be OK.’ Just as Durbin sculpted the landscape for Cherokee language revitalization work for generations to come, he also touched the heart of every language learner he encountered,” said Cherokee Nation Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden. “Though our hearts are devastated by Durbin’s passing, we are humbled by his generosity. In his honor, we will do our best to continue his work. History shall read that there was a man who was born among the Cherokee people, who stood up in the face of numerous adversities, who saw the future of the Cherokee people would be grossly at a disadvantage without its language, and who worked tirelessly to build tools and a vision for the better part of his lifetime to prop up a language which was endowed by the Creator from the beginning of time, to serve the uniqueness of the Cherokee people. For this, the Cherokee people will forever be indebted to Durbin Feeling.”
Durbin was a Vietnam Veteran, having earned a Purple Heart and National Defense Medal, and was an ordained minister.
In 2011, he was named a Cherokee National Treasure for advancing the Cherokee language and was the parade marshal at the Cherokee National Holiday in 2013.
“Most of our translators credit him for teaching them to read and write Syllabary,” said Roy Boney, manager of the tribe’s language translation team. “His Cherokee English Dictionary is the standard publication for Cherokee language reference with learners and speakers referring to it constantly. Any time we thought we had a new idea, I remember Durbin would dig in his archives and pull out a research paper or proposal he had already written for it.”
In 2019, through the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, Chief Hoskin named the Durbin Feeling Language Center in Feeling’s honor. The future language center will house all three of the tribe’s language programs including its translation office, immersion school and Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program under one roof.
“I can say without a doubt that Durbin Feeling laid the groundwork for this generation’s preservation of the Cherokee language,” Council of the Cherokee Nation Speaker Joe Byrd said. “Donadagohvi.”