In the spring of 2018, Speaker Joe Byrd found a seat on the airport shuttle headed to Tulsa International Airport, and over the radio heard a familiar, yet surprising sound: the Cherokee Youth Choir singing in his endangered native tongue.
“Who would ever imagine 20 years ago that we would be hearing our own language in a shuttle bus away from our rural areas?” asked Byrd, a former principal chief, current Cherokee Nation Tribal Council member and a Cherokee language speaker. “I couldn’t help but swell with pride and realize the distance we have come.”
The Cherokee Nation holds onto a crucial piece of tribal culture through its remaining 2,000 native speakers, a majority of whom are 50 and older. The youngest fluent Cherokee speaker is 35, which means the language faces potential extinction as older members die.
“If you hear people speaking Cherokee, even if you don’t understand it, it reminds you that we’re a people that have existed since time immemorial… and that we’re distinct people,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin said. “If that stops happening then that distinction starts to melt away.”
According to the Cherokee Nation website, the Cherokee Nation Language and Cultural Preservation Act was signed in 1991, and, in part, identifies the language as an important part of Cherokee identity and recognizes the need for its preservation.
In an effort to promote and preserve the language, an immersion school called Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi was founded in 2001 with 26 students and four staff members.
Today, Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi supports nearly 100 K-6 grade students and is the first Oklahoma public school for Cherokee language immersion. Students are taught using only the Cherokee language and syllabary.
“If we don’t [teach our language], then in a generation we will have gaming, we’ll have businesses, we’ll sell car tags, we’ll have a healthcare system, but we won’t have people speaking our language,” Hoskin said. “And if we don’t have people who speak our language maybe we won’t have people who practice our culture and traditions and maybe we’ll lose our history a bit, and what have we become? We’ll be a gaming corporation, a business portfolio and a healthcare delivery system, and maybe even lose our identity.”
The Cherokee syllabary traces back more than 180 years to the original homelands of the tribe before its forced removal on the Trail of Tears.
At the time of its removal, the Cherokee Nation was well-established with a successful government, an agricultural economy, a tribal religion and spoken and written languages. The tribe had a 90 percent literacy rate. By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1906, the literacy rate had plummeted to 10 percent, Byrd said.
Sequoyah, a blacksmith, trader, silversmith and soldier in the War of 1812, introduced the official Cherokee syllabary in 1821 after years of development. The syllabary would be the foundation of Cherokee resistance to removal.
“We did a couple things (to resist removal) we reorganized our government (with) a written constitution,” Hoskin said. “You can’t have a written constitution that your people understand unless there’s a written language, that’s the genius of Sequoyah’s syllabary.”
Another way Hoskin said the Cherokees resisted removal was through the founding of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper. Hoskin said it published in Cherokee and English and allowed the nation to inform the white settlers and Cherokee people of current events.
“If we hadn’t have done that I think we would have been removed earlier,” Hoskin continued. “And I think the removal would have been more devastating.”
Removal began when the Treaty of New Echota was signed in December of 1835 by a handful of Cherokees who had no authority to do so, said Jack Baker, former Tribal Council member, president of the Oklahoma Historical Society and national president of the Trail of Tears Association. The treaty gave the Cherokees a two-year period starting May 23, 1836, to leave their homelands in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama and move west of the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma.
Chief John Ross and his tribal council fought to invalidate or negotiate a new treaty for the Cherokee people, but the two-year period came to an end and the U.S. military was sent to initiate forced removal.
Federal troops, with the aid of the Georgia Guard, began rounding up the Cherokee people. They raided Cherokee homes, forcing families to leave their belongings, land, houses and life as they knew it behind. The Cherokee people were then placed into 31 stockades and eventually into 11 camps in Alabama and Tennessee.
Commander Winfield Scott was in charge of the removal of the Cherokee Nation. The first three detachments of Cherokees began the journey to Oklahoma in June of 1838, a nearly 1,200-mile trek long over land and water, which would soon be known as the Trail of Tears.
By the time all 13 detachments arrived in Indian Country in March of 1839, a quarter of the Cherokee population had died on the trail or in the stockades awaiting removal.
Even after the Trail of Tears, the unjust treatment of the Cherokee Nation was far from over. The Nation’s once communal land was divided up into allotments and distributed to Cherokee citizens.
A few years after allotment, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is run by the federal government, placed restrictions on citizens who were half-blood or more. The allotments owned by these citizens could not be sold without consulting the bureau, and if the land had oil or other valuable properties, a guardian would be assigned, Baker said.
“A lot of us... have more Indian in us than what’s on record,” Dixon said. “I know my great grandmother she… wouldn’t tell if (she)... was over half.”
Dixon said her mother was assigned a guardian after she was allotted land. Her guardian was a white man who owned a land company. He married Dixon’s mother when she came of age, then sold her land and divorced her.
Stories like these were common during the years after the removal. But one thing proves true throughout history:
“They’re survivors. They’re really survivors,” said Dixon. “And if you start at the beginning of their beginning and where they are now, it’s awesome… they just need a chance.”
Today, the Cherokee Nation stands as one of Oklahoma’s top economic contributors. According to the tribe’s website, Cherokee Nation Businesses contributed $2.16 billion to Oklahoma’s economy in fiscal year 2018.
“What I think is important… for people to know for the history, is we picked ourselves back up within a decade and rebuilt.” Hoskin said.
“We constituted our government again, took this political split of historic proportions and we bound ourselves back together. We took the resources we had left… and experienced a golden age so quickly after one of the most destructive things the United States has ever done to a people. I think that’s a point of pride for the Cherokees.”
Reflecting on how their ancestors fought for the Cherokee Nation inspires tribal citizens to keep fighting today, Byrd said.
“While [the Trail of Tears] was a tragic event and part of our history it is not our defining moment,” Byrd said. “ We are here today and it tells the world that the survival of our people has made us stronger and makes us continue to fight and to continue exerting our sovereignty of who we are.”