TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation hosted the launch of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages in Tahlequah last week. The three-day event featured language leaders from around the world, both in person and virtually, to share information and best practices on language preservation efforts.
The 10-year initiative continues the work of the United Nations General Assembly’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, drawing attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. opened the event with a welcome, and Special Envoy for International Affairs and Language Preservation Joe Byrd offered a blessing.
Chief Hoskin highlighted Cherokee Nation’s efforts to perpetuate the Cherokee language and the tribe’s hopes for the future. He also shared words of hope for language preservation and revitalization for the world.
“The International Decade of Indigenous Languages is a huge endeavor, and I think to kick it off in the Cherokee Nation is something special. The Cherokee Nation continues to take the lead when it comes to language revitalization, but by working together with other language warriors, working toward the same goal, it helps us remember that this effort that we are undertaking really is a global effort,” Chief Hoskin said. “If we are successful in our efforts, we will do a great deal to restore the languages of Indigenous peoples around the world. But I also think if we are successful over the course of the next decade, we will bring healing in a very meaningful way to a world that is sorely in need of it.”
Before colonization, the world had around 10,000 languages. Now, some research suggests there are only 6,500 languages left, with an average loss of two per week. Without efforts to save and perpetuate these languages, it is estimated that by 2060, 80 percent of the earth’s population will only speak 28 languages.
“When a language dies, you lose a world. We have pushed for the Cherokee language, and in pushing for our language, we have seen the needs of other Indigenous languages and the work they are doing,” Cherokee Nation Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden said. “If we can borrow different methodologies and different techniques from one another, it allows all of us to have a bigger launch pad to help save our languages, and that’s what this event is all about.”
The event included presenters from various Indigenous language programs sharing information on successful initiatives. The event also featured cultural demonstrations from Indigenous peoples celebrating their language. A number of indigenous languages were represented during the event including the Māori language from New Zealand, the Pertame language from Australia, and languages from Russia, France and other countries.
The goal of the gathering was to highlight the ongoing, 10-year initiative to triple the amount of Indigenous language groups that are rebuilding their speaker populations.
“The whole idea of this particular summit is first, to celebrate languages, but also to focus on language programs around the world that are actually creating new speakers,” Cherokee Language Manager Roy Boney Jr. said. “We have a very strong language department that is actually doing this with the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program and the Cherokee Immersion School, so our tribe serves as a model for many other Indigenous language programs. So, it has been a huge honor for us to be part of this and share our knowledge with others.”
The Cherokee Nation is recognized as a leader among tribal language revitalization efforts. The tribe’s preservation efforts include the Cherokee Immersion School, Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, a translation office, community and online language classes and language technology. In 2019, Chief Hoskin signed the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act to invest the largest amount of funding in tribal history into saving and perpetuating the Cherokee language. The act was named in honor of the late Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling, known as the single biggest contributor to the Cherokee language efforts since Sequoyah.
For more information or resources on the Cherokee Language, visit language.cherokee.org.