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Investments in Cherokee Nation language immersion program may be a model for national programs

left to right: Third-grade Cherokee Immersion School teacher Cindy Collins, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. listen to third-grade students Hunter Sanders, Henry Johnson and Riley Aimerson.

In an effort to preserve and rebuild Native languages, First Lady Jill Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Tahlequah, Okla., to tour the Cherokee Nation Immersion School.

Students at the school are working to preserve the Cherokee language, and those efforts were on full display during the tour. An eighth grade student introduced the First Lady in Cherokee, and the Cherokee National Youth Choir performed a Cherokee hymn, “Orphan Child”.

"It’s a beautiful reminder the spirit of a people cannot be lost when there are those who are willing to hold it in their hearts — to fight for it with love, dedication and strength," said Dr. Biden. This was her third visit to a tribal community since taking office.

Secretary Haaland used the opportunity to tout the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan that’s making its way through Congress, saying it would provide $200 million for Native language revitalization efforts.

The visit followed the White House Tribal Nation's summit in November. At the summit, Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. touted the tribal nation's language programs as well as their $40 million investment in Head Start, which includes Cherokee Language immersion.

Hoskin made language preservation one of his top agenda items when he took office in 2019. Today, there are approximately 2,000 fluent first language speakers.

He encouraged the White House to make further investments, citing the backlog of Bureau of Indian Education school construction projects. This includes upgrades to Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah.

“I want to thank First Lady Dr. Biden and Secretary Haaland for visiting the Cherokee Nation Reservation and seeing first-hand how our Cherokee Language Department is not just preserving our precious Cherokee language, but finding innovative ways to perpetuate it so that it remains the lifeblood of Cherokee culture for generations to come,” Hoskin said.

A multi-agency memorandum of understanding on Native language is something Hoskin said will help language preservation across the country. Dr. Biden introduced that memorandum at the November summit.

Hoskin is also urging Congress to pass the Durbin Feeling Native Language Act of 2021. This mirrors the act passed in the Cherokee nation and would set federal goals for language preservation. The first Native language preservation act passed in 1990 and was signed by George H.W. Bush.

“It’s amazing to be at the Cherokee Immersion School with our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to highlight an issue that is close to my heart,” Secretary Haaland said. “Our Indigenous languages are an important part of our culture and who we are as a people. Our languages connect us to our ancestors and to our homelands, and help us share Indigenous knowledge from generation to generation. Many of our languages are at risk from being lost. That’s why Native language preservation is so important, and we are taking action.”

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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