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State Of Emergency Declared For Cherokee Language

Lilly Knoepp
New Kituwah Academy is a part of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

  The Cherokee language is officially in a state of emergency according to the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Blue Ridge Public Radio sat down with an Eastern Band native speaker at the new Kituwah Academy to learn more. 


Myrtle Driver Johnson is 75 years old. She’s an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a Beloved Woman. 


Johnson introduces herself in Cherokee before switching to English. 


“I’m the translator here and I’m also the translator for the tribal council,” says Johnson.


She’s one of just 211 members of the tribe who are fluent speakers, and has served as a translator for the Eastern Band since the 1970’s. She also works at the New Kituwah Academy to help kids in the tribe learn Cherokee.


Last week, officials from Cherokee Nation, Keetoowah Band and the Eastern Band came together as the Tri-Council to declare their language is in a state of emergency. They also passed a resolution to work together to revitalize it. 


“When they signed it they made an agreement with us that they are going to help us. I’m not going to let them forget it,” says Johnson, who has been working to teach and preserve the Cherokee language. 


There are only about 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers in the three federally recognized tribes. The resolution states that number is diminishing faster than new speakers are developing.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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