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Cherokee Education: Finding the Ancestors' Words

The Cherokee flag waving above the sacred mounds
It's the first day of school and you haven't understood a thing since you cautiously took your seat at the hard, wooden bench. Words are scrawled across the chalkboard, but to your eyes, they resemble talking leaves. The teacher is speaking, but to your ears, she sounds like thunder. Yet, you must pay close attention. This is the tongue of the white man. If you are to survive in their world, you must learn their language. That's what Father says, anyway.

You've heard English before - several times, in fact. The first was the morning the School Administrator and his Assistant rode up in their horse-drawn carriage. You were out in the fields picking corn with your brothers and sisters when Father called you over. You knew your life was about to change irrevocably when you noticed the bundle of your belongings stuffed in the back seat of the carriage.

This very fate has befallen a number of your friends and neighbors. One by one, they were whisked away in a carriage to a far-off boarding school. When they finally returned, years later, they could hardly speak Cherokee and had forgotten all the sacred ceremonies and customs. They knew only the ways of the white man.

As you sit in this classroom, surrounded by an impossibly solemn group of Chickasaws, Creeks and fellow Cherokees, you realize that it's about to happen to you. You too will be stripped of more and more aspects of your indigenous culture until the day you are bare and "civilized."

Suddenly, the teacher looks straight at you, points to one of the talking leaves on the chalkboard and thunders. She has obviously asked a question, but you can't fathom what. So you reply the only way you know how - in Cherokee. The classroom grows deadly silent as the teacher's face turns red with rage. You have unwittingly broken the school's golden rule. The teacher grabs you by the elbow and pulls you to the front of the classroom. Thirty pairs of sympathetic eyes greet you. They know what's about to happen. They've seen it - and experienced it - many times before.


A near roadkill: Nick and I saw a real live...

The teacher unwraps a bar of lye soap and thunders at you. Then she pinches your nose -- hard. When you open your mouth to breathe, she shoves the soap into your mouth and twists it about, lathering your tongue and scrubbing your teeth. As your mouth fills with foam, you vow never to speak the language of your ancestors in class again. The "civilization" process has begun.

Such was the fate for thousands of American Indians between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Under the United States' "Civilization Policy," indigenous people were forced to adopt the "American" way of life, which usually meant giving up their own culture, religion and tribal organization. The Cherokee were one of the most accepting tribes, adopting everything from English and Christianity to the concept of individual ownership of property. Under the influence of the white man, they built log cabins, raised cattle and planted cotton and corn. Cherokee women made ceramics and wove Spanish yarn in their looms; men used modern weapons and became politicians. And their children, more often than not, were subjected to the stringent "civilization" process at boarding schools.

The Quakers established the first successful education system for the East Band of Cherokee in 1880. Twelve years later, the federal government stepped in, and for the next half-century, students endured teaching methods that were often humiliating. Nick and I heard countless stories of hair pulling, beatings and ruthless bars of soap when we visited the Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina. Conditions were sometimes so wretched, students tried to run away. In one case, a student walked 65 miles across the Smokey Mountains to escape!

"It was like being in the Army. Students weren't allowed to associate with anyone from the outside - not even their own family," said Buck West, a lecturer whom we met at the Oconaluftee Indian Village on the Cherokee reservation. His mother attended boarding school until 1948 and lost her ability to speak Cherokee in the process. As a result, he didn't hear his native language much at home.

"When I was 6, I asked my grandma why I couldn't talk like her, and she told me 'Because it's not good. You can get in trouble,'" he said.

Nick pays his respects to the Cherokee flag
Can you believe that these people were punished for upholding their culture in a country that was supposedly founded on diversity? Even more devastating is the fact that the Cherokee were ultimately stabbed in the back by the very men they tried so hard to imitate. See Nick's story on the Trail of Tears for the grizzly details.

Although it happened at a snail's pace, the Cherokee's education system eventually started changing. In the '30s, school officials began to question whether removing 5-and 6-year-old children from their families and tribes was humane. Some even concluded that Indians had the right to uphold their own culture. Most Indian boarding schools were abolished in the '50s and by the '60s; a number of the day schools had been discontinued as well. But the federal government didn't loosen its reins on the school system until 1990. Only then was education at last returned to the hands of the Cherokee.

What a difference a decade makes! Nick and I visited the Cherokee's elementary and high schools and were dazzled by the many ways the administration respects the student's indigenous culture. Beautiful murals and artwork depicting Indian life adorn the walls of both schools. The high school offers classes on Native American crafts such as pottery, basket-making and weaving as well as woodcarving. The elementary has instituted a program in each grade called the "Sacred Path" in which students gather in a circle once a week to discuss the ways they've honored the sacred customs of being respectful, truthful and caring.

The mastermind behind the written Cherokee language
Best of all, every single student who attends school on the reservation is required to study Cherokee. In the elementary school, teachers play language tapes every day and teach the 80-plus characters of the Cherokee syllabary. That's right - unlike most Indian languages, Cherokee has a written form. It was developed in the early 1800s by a tribesman named Sequoyah, who is the only known person in history to devise a writing system without being literate in another language first.

It took him 12 years to create a character for each sound in the language and then he dedicated the rest of his life to teaching this system to his fellow tribesmen.

The Cherokee language consists of more than 80 characters
In 1828, Sequoyah's syllabary enabled the Cherokee to print the first-ever Native American newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, which boasted a readership of 300 over a 6-year period.

Today, Sequoyah's writing system enables Cherokee to learn the language in a classroom setting. In fact, no one can graduate from Cherokee High School until they've passed a class on Cherokee language and culture. Felicia, a fourth grader, told us that this was her favorite aspect of her culture: "If we don't start speaking it, we'll lose the speech of our ancestors, and that means losing a part of who we are."

The Cherokee Phoenix was printed in this very building
Visiting these schools gave Nick and I a great deal of hope for the Eastern band of the Cherokee. The students' knowledge of who they are and where they come from inspired us both. Just think how rich our country would be if everyone did!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Three wars, thousands of troops and 100 utterly unconquerable Seminoles
Nick - A warrior, a prophet and a general unravel the Creek nation
Nick - Let's lose Chief Win 'Em All
Nick -- Still walkin' the Trail of Tears
Team - Beware: Surprise Indian attacks ahead!