On the younger generation fluently speak Tsalagi.

On the westside of North Carolina, was a valley. Imagine this: a river streaming through the mountains — a river so pristine and clear that you could almost see the wispy clouds and the blue sky above you. Within the majestic Maggie valley, stood a town. A town so full of joy and vibrance. The men hunted and the women farmed.

Alongside my mother were my sister and I where we would harvest corn and sunflowers. “Heyatahesd, Igido! (Be careful, sister!)” hollered my sister as we were running through the vast field of sunflowers in hopes of catching the saturated sunset. It was picture perfect. I loved every single bit of it.

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This was my life, my home, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.        My entire family was fluent in Tsalagi — another word for the Cherokee language — and had it as their first language. Throughout the years of my childhood, I spoke Cherokee at home: with my siblings, relatives and clan chiefs. Nvda diniyoli, we were called. The children of the sun. We screamed in Tsalagi, sang in Tsalagi and cried in Tsalagi. It was until I realized later on that the older I grew and the more people I met in high school, the fewer the people I knew that spoke Tsalagi.

And, like many high schoolers, I wanted to fit in. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of being Cherokee. Fast forward and I am now a 47-year-old mother to two beautiful children and a husband who also speaks. Our family is fully Cherokee, from the blood down to the chromosomes and yet we do not scream, sing nor cry in Tsalagi. Unfortunately, my children do not speak the language of Cherokee. This became more frequent all around. Fewer and fewer of the younger generation fluently speak Tsalagi.

Alas, despite the 2,318 Cherokees alive, only 400 speak Tsalagi; Tsalagi is slowly dying and coming to an end: extinction. However, losing a language is not merely the loss of a bunch of letters and sounds. Before you turn a blind eye to this issue, I would like to share with you how the children of the sun truly communicate. Tsalagi has six different tones and is polysynthetic which simply means that it is a single word comprising of other small words. We do not have a word for  goodbye nor do we have a word for sorry.

Instead, we have Stiyu (be strong), Donadagohvi (till we meet again) and oo-kah-huh-sdee, which describes the mouthwatering, cheek-pinching sensation you get from looking at a kitten. Our people had an understanding for gathering information and the use of medicinal herbs. Plants would be named by their medicinal functions and attributes. Jisdu unigisdi (what rabbits eat), otherwise known as a Wild Rose, is a ripe fruit rich in vitamin C used to cure the common cold whilst stimulating the bladder and kidneys. Tsalagi is an endangered language. Like many others languages, it is affected by linguistic imperialism. In a society where the ability to speak English fluently can guarantee a better future career, many Cherokee families do not see the necessity in teaching their children their heritage language as it might only hinder their success in the future. Moreover, children studying at boarding or public schools were not allowed to speak their native language and hence faced less opportunity in practicing their language as well.

When a language dies, not only does its vocabulary and grammar deteriorate, but so does the culture and identity behind it. If Tsalagi goes extinct, everything that defines Cherokee will be gone and forgotten. This includes means of living, ancestral knowledge, history, the use of traditional medicinal herbs and the bravery of the past warriors of Cherokee that died protecting their own nation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a language that symbolizes a nation’s literacy, progress and heritage. The art, cultural values and identity of Cherokee will be lost, leaving the world to be a less diverse place.To me, and many other Cherokees, Tsalagi is the core of all Cherokee clans: the Ani’-wa’`ya (Wolf)clan, the Ani’-Kaw?’ (Deer) clan, the Ani’-Tsi’skwa (Bird) clan, the Ani’-wi’d? (Paint) clan and many more.

Tsalagi is the pumping heart to the body of the nation. E-lo-hi for Earth, u-no-le for air, A-ma for water and A-tsi-la for fire. Tsalagi is a gateway to the minds of Cherokees and on how we interpret the world, the universe and everything.

How the community revolves around clan meetings, alternating houses in the winters and the summers and how the men hunted and the women farmed. All of it would be gone. From our mighty civilization on the Mississippi River to the removal act in 1830 in order to remove Indian tribes from federal territory in exchange for lands. This resulted in 4,000 deaths from disease and famine. We call it the trail of tears. With this being said, I am here on this stage today on behalf of the Eastern Band of  Cherokee indians to show you why it is important to preserve endangered languages such as Tsalagi. I am here to hopefully inspire every single one of you to be proud of your own culture despite its level of minority.

Language is not comprised of just letters of the alphabet but more so the process of crafting the language and how it has been used by its people which makes language so hard to let go of. Now it is up to you to carry on this language and teach the younger generation the minority language as it is not the words, but the meaning behind every letter and every sound. You, as teenagers living in this society, get the choice to determine the continuity of a language, and so so much more. We shall preserve Tsalagi together. We shall sustain memories, heritage and identity that the previous generations have given us the responsibility to.

Thank you.


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