'We try hard to teach these kids Cherokee'

New Kituwah Academy offers full-immersion Cherokee language program for children ranging from infants to eighth graders

Story and Motion Graphic by José Valle

UNC Media Hub

CHEROKEE, North Carolina — The New Kituwah Academy opened its doors in 2009 with a full-immersion Cherokee language program for children ranging from infants to eighth-graders.

The school is designed to keep the Cherokee language alive by increasing the number of young fluent speakers, as only 238 people in North Carolina still speak the Kituwah dialect and most of them are above the age of 55.

“It seems like this past year or two, the fluent speakers as old as I am or a little older are all passing away and our Cherokee language is going away with them,” Ann Arneach, a 71-year-old native speaker, said. “We try hard here to teach these kids Cherokee.”

The school starts off teaching in Cherokee and implements English in the students’ later years, simultaneously meeting North Carolina education requirements.

Arneach, who has taught at the academy, recalls going to the grocery store with her granddaughter and experiencing the granddaughter’s surprise when there was no response to her greeting someone in Cherokee.

“That’s the way it is when the kids go out,” Arneach said. “They have to use English when they go out there. But here? Here they can use Cherokee.”

Rainy Brake, a first-grade teacher at New Kituwah, believes that the children have a right to express their Cherokee selves and culture. She became fluent in Cherokee by learning from a fluent speaker alongside her students when the school opened. Brake initially went to college planning to become a Native American literature professor, but changed her mind after starting at the academy.

“A lot of times life tells you where to go, so I don’t think I’ll ever leave here,” Brake said. “I really, really feel like I’ve found a calling. I wake up every morning and I know I’m making a difference and I know that when I go to bed at night that things have gotten better because we’re here, and we’re on a mission.”

Above: Kituwah Academy first grade teacher Rainy Brake sings the Syllabary Song, which includes some of the characters in the Cherokee syllabary.

While everyone at New Kituwah is dedicated to the cause, sometimes the children struggle to learn Cherokee. The same is true for some college students trying to learn the language, according to Ben Frey, an assistant professor of American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. In his early years, he tried a full-immersion approach but had to alter his plans when students were so taken aback by its lack of resemblance to English.

“People can’t even wrap their heads around that it’s not related to English,” Frey said. “It’s hard to get students to be able to participate. Nowadays, I’ll warn people and say ‘OK, this is going to be scary. This is what’s going to happen to you,’ and hopefully that helps when I teach it next time.”

Cherokee is only one of thousands of languages throughout the world facing danger.

The Celtic family is the first family of languages to be endangered in Europe. In Scotland, Scottish Gaelic, part of the Celtic family, has about 60,000 native speakers. Michael Newton, a decades-long Scottish Gaelic scholar, raised his 5-year-old daughter speaking Scottish Gaelic. While he attests that teaching a child another language is difficult, he says it is possible.

“One of the real challenges in the U.S. is a very monolingual, Anglo-centric mindset,” Newton said. “That in itself is a challenge to overcome, in addition to learning the language. This kind of globalized approach thinking that there’s one solution, and it’s the English language and that’s going to solve everybody’s problems by buying into this package is very problematic.”

A similar situation occurs in Guatemala, where some indigenous people spoke K’iche’ Maya, but were forced to learn Spanish, the country’s official language to obtain better opportunities. This is true for Emilio del Valle Escalante, an associate professor of Spanish at UNC-Chapel Hill, and it is the reason he is studying K’iche’ Maya, one of 21 Maya languages spoken in Guatemala, now.

Unlike Cherokee and Scottish Gaelic, K’iche’ Maya has 1.7 million fluent speakers. It is one of the stronger Maya languages, but efforts are being made and new technologies are being developed to preserve the other 20.

“With technology, it’s like a double-edged sword,” del Valle Escalante said. “We don’t have access to these languages when we turn on the TV or radio or go on the internet, but we’re using technology to revitalize the language through resources like online dictionaries and videos.”

While these and other languages are facing hardship, Frey thinks there is no true point to focusing solely on the doom and gloom of it all.

“I don’t want to sound that way and I don’t want to end that way,” Frey said. “We need to focus on not on what we’re losing and what’s disappearing, but what we can potentially bring with us into the future. People are motivated by joy, and the Cherokee language has a lot to bring to the world in terms of the joy it’s able to generate and able to let people share with one another.”

Media Hub is created by students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. The students report long-form stories, videos and multimedia news packages covering North Carolina and the world.

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