Cherokee language is core to our culture and our identity as a distinct people. Since European contact, the Cherokee people have been tested by wars, disease, broken treaties, forced removal, the suppression of our government, and the taking of our children away from their families to boarding schools where they could be severely punished just for speaking Cherokee.
We are a strong people, but our life ways and language have been eroded by these pressures over time. We stand today as largest tribe in the country with more than 440,000 citizens, yet we have been reduced to around 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, most of them older than 70. Now the passage of time and the fragility of human life is our greatest test.
A few days ago, Cherokee speakers from across the country gathered among more than 2,000 attendees for the grand opening of the Durbin Feeling Language Center. This historic, 52,000-square-foot facility in Tahlequah will help ensure that the chain of language that links us to our Cherokee ancestors will never be broken.
The Durbin Feeling Language Center will house all of Cherokee Nation’s growing language programs under one roof, including the Tahlequah Cherokee Immersion Charter School, the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program for adult learners, the tribe’s team of translators, and more. It includes 17 classrooms, a library and archive, and other additions that will support the Cherokee Language Department’s efforts for decades to come. Everything inside the facility is written in Cherokee Syllabary.
Most Cherokees today are like their Chief: they don’t speak Cherokee. But when I walked into the Durbin Feeling Language Center and was surrounded by young people all speaking Cherokee, I have never been more proud. I know that one of the children learning at this great facility will one day lead us as a fluent-speaking Chief.
Those children are also part of the wonderful legacy of the late, great Durbin Feeling, the single-largest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he authored dozens of books and research articles and developed hundreds of Cherokee language teaching materials that remain in use today. Durbin also compiled the Cherokee dictionary and took the first steps to bring Cherokee into the modern world by making it available in word processors and smartphones.
His lifetime mission of saving the Cherokee language has also been a sacred responsibility of Cherokee leaders past and present. A few short years ago, Chief Bill John Baker had an initial vision to convert Cherokee Nation’s old casino building to a language center. Then in 2019, the Council of the Cherokee Nation approved the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, introduced by Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and me, to make the largest language investment in Cherokee Nation history.
The new $20 million state-of-the-art facility is the culmination of those efforts, but the most important work is yet to be done. That work is happening now with the dedicated teachers and learners of Cherokee who will fill the Durbin Feeling Language Center each day.
History will judge us on whether we can not only save the Cherokee language, but revitalize it as core to the lives of our people. Generations from now, I believe Cherokee Nation will remain the greatest force for economic vitality in our region. Our health system will remain the best in Indian Country – and will be one of the best in the world. I believe we will have crafted an unparalleled system of public safety and justice for all. We will continue to lead on education, poverty-reduction, environmental protection, and more.
But, if we lose our language, that precious link to our past and connection to our creation, we will have lost something that none of those other accomplishments can make up for.
Failure on the mission to save our language is simply not an option. As I stood in the Durbin Feeling Language Center, I was more convinced than ever that generations from now, the Cherokee people will know we met the test.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.