TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — First Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Immersion School in Tahlequah on Friday to experience first-hand how the tribe is successfully making historic investments in preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language.
The visit by First Lady Biden, First Daughter Ashley Biden, and Secretary Haaland came just more than two weeks after the First Lady unveiled The White House Native Language Memorandum of Agreement during the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit. The two-day virtual summit in November was the first gathering of tribal leaders since 2016 and was established to connect the Biden Administration with tribal leaders across the country in a nation-to-nation setting.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. was a panelist during the summit and encouraged the Biden Administration to continue to have robust, meaningful dialogue on critical issues, policy initiatives and goals that impact all of Indian Country.
“I want to thank First Lady Dr. Biden and Secretary Haaland for visiting the Cherokee Nation Reservation and seeing first-hand how our Cherokee Language Department is not just preserving our precious Cherokee language, but finding innovative ways to perpetuate it so that it remains the lifeblood of Cherokee culture for generations to come,” Chief Hoskin said. “The Cherokee Nation remains committed to preserving our language because we know it is at the heart of our identity. Friday’s visit by First Lady Biden and Secretary Haaland provided us an opportunity to discuss how critical it is that the Cherokee Nation and tribal nations across the country receive the resources and support we need to act swiftly and decisively to save our unique languages, which are cultural treasures.”
Discussion during the visit focused on the Cherokee Nation Durbin Feeling Language Act signed by Chief Hoskin in 2019 to invest a historic $16 million into preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language. The Act has paved the way for the tribe to build a new state-of-the-art language hub to house all Cherokee language programs in one facility. The Act is named in honor of the late Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling, known as the greatest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah.
In addition to highlighting Cherokee Nation’s language preservation efforts, Chief Hoskin praised the recent multi-agency Memorandum of Agreement on Native Languages which will help preservation efforts across Indian Country. He also discussed the need for Congress to quickly pass the bi-partisan Durbin Feeling Native Language Act of 2021, setting federal goals for preservation efforts.
During the Cherokee Immersion School visit, First Lady Biden and Secretary Haaland joined third-grade Cherokee students for a portion of their classroom instruction reading, writing and speaking the Cherokee language. In the immersion environment, students learn state-standard, grade-level curriculum but entirely in the Cherokee language throughout the day.
Members of the renowned Cherokee National Youth Choir also performed a Cherokee hymn, “Orphan Child,” for First Lady Biden and Secretary Haaland during the visit.
“As an English teacher, I have always believed that language is not just a collection of words. Language has the power to create, defining the shades of our joy and sorrow, dividing what matters from the mundane. It helps us tell the story of our culture and traditions -- containing the wisdom of the world that only we know. It connects us to our faith, naming the divine and our relationship with it. It is a thread weaving through the past, present, and future -- the inheritance of our ancestors and a gift we give to our children. The ability to speak our own truth in our own words is power,” said First Lady Biden.
The Biden Administration is dedicating $220 million to help tribal nations around the country protect and preserve their native languages.
“It’s amazing to be at the Cherokee Immersion School with our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to highlight an issue that is close to my heart,” Secretary Haaland said. “Our indigenous languages are an important part of our culture and who we are as a people. Our languages connect us to our ancestors and to our homelands and help us share indigenous knowledge from generation to generation. Many of our languages are at risk from being lost. That’s why Native language preservation is so important and we are taking action.”
First Lady Biden is a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College. Along with advocating for tribal communities, she is an ardent supporter of education, military families, economic empowerment for women and girls, and cancer education and prevention.
Secretary Haaland made history by becoming the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and is an ardent advocate for environmental justice, missing and murdered indigenous women, and policies that support Native American communities.
The White House Native Language Memorandum of Agreement unveiled by First Lady Biden in November was signed by the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, the Interior and numerous other federal agencies to help promote collaboration on programming, resource development and policy related to Native languages. The MOA also establishes a Native Language Workgroup with representatives from the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, and the Bureau of Indian Education to report annually on progress related to the agreement.
Chief Hoskin, First Lady January Hoskin, Daughter Jasmine Hoskin, Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner, members of the cabinet, Council of the Cherokee Nation, Special Envoy for Language Joe Byrd, Executive Director of Language Howard Paden, Miss Cherokee Chelbie Turtle and many students and staff from Cherokee Immersion School attended the visit.