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COVID-19 Has Made Teaching The Cherokee Language Even Harder

Photo courtesy of New Kituwah Academy
Kituwah Preservation & Education Team members mask up for social media.

Long before the world had ever heard of COVID-19, the Cherokee language was in trouble.

Last year, the three tribes in the U.S. declared a state of emergency because there are now so few fluent speakers.  That includes the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in Western North Carolina.  Here’s how the pandemic has impacted the teaching of the language:

The New Kituwah Academy started in 2004 to teach a new generation of fluent Cherokee speakers. Like other schools, the pandemic caused educators to go to virtual instruction.

“I did not anticipate that we would still be remote this far into the school year.”

That’s Crystal Carpenter. She’s principal of the elementary school department at New Kituwah Academy. This is her third school year. Students have been learning virtually since March. She says it's been challenging.  

“I think that the elementary teacher in me says that there has to be something that we take out of this and learn from it,” said Carpenter. The elementary school is K-6. Early childhood classes came back in June after the Eastern Band’s tribal government opened back up and many parents had to go back to work.

Many parents at the school have stepped up says Carpenter.

“I think that there are parents that I am very proud of who have taken that extra step to reach out to us and ask for those translations,” said Carpenter.  “To ask, ‘How do I say this?’ and ‘How do I help them with this?’ I think that parents working on their own language have been in a happy result from that.”

The school is innovating to teach the Cherokee language, as it’s harder to learn without in-person facial expressions.  It started a virtual lunch hour so that students could casually chat in Cherokee.

“With students not being here in school physically, they were missing the informal component of the language and just the social interactions with their peers and the staff,” said Carpenter.  

There are fewer than 200 fluent speakers left in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

That’s Irene Smoker-Jackson. She’s a fluent speaker and the elementary Cherokee language specialist at Kituwah. She has worked at the school for 13 years, translating lessons into Cherokee.

“It was kind of hard at first, because internet, it's hard to come by where I live,” said Smoker-Jackson, who is 54 and lives near Robbinsville. 

“Before, when you were in a classroom they could see your facial expression, I could see your mouth movement.”

Since the pandemic, Smoker-Jackson has mainly been sending audio messages back and forth with teachers to translate words. 

“You're always translating, it's like just translating 24-hours a day. It takes a lot to translate one word. It could take you couple hours, you know, you can't just throw it out there, just like an English word,” Smoker-Jackson said.  

Smoker-Jackson grew up in a home where her parents spoke only Cherokee. She has always called her mother for help with translation. But in October, her mother passed away due to COVID-19 at the age of 91.

Credit Photo courtesy of Irene Smoker-Jackson
Irene Smoker-Jackson and her mom, Amy Teesateskie Smoker, stand together at her wedding.

“She left a lot of memory with me and a lot of words with me that are in my heart that I can still carry on,” said Smoker-Jackson.

Her mother was one of the last people in the Snowbird community who spoke only Cherokee. She contracted COVID after being sent home from hospice. 

“They realized that my mother had it really bad. Her lungs were already filling up with the mucus, the fluid was building up. So she lasted two days there,” said Smoker-Jackson.

For Smoker-Jackson, COVID-19 has only strengthened her resolve and passion to preserve the Cherokee language.

“The language is dying out because it's taking out our elders, our speakers. That is why it is important that we continue with the schooling and we continue embedding it in the kids that we have now,” said Smoker-Jackson.

The New Kituwah Academy hopes to start some in-person classes again on January 11th after waiting to see whether there’s another surge of COVID-19 cases after Christmas, like what was seen after Thanksgiving. Cherokee Central Schools plan to start a hybrid schedule on January 5th.

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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