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Cherokee Nation Prioritizes First Speakers Along With Healthcare Workers For The COVID-19 Vaccine

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Cherokee first language speaker Tim King gets the COVID-19 vaccine shot.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on Indian Country, where systemic racism has led to healthcare disparities for Native Americans. For Cherokee Nation and many other Tribal nations, COVID-19 is threatening a precious resource: first language speakers.

Tim King grew up in Kenwood, Oklahoma — a small community in the Cherokee Nation, about 30 miles north of Tahlequah.

"There was like several residents in there and probably about 10 houses," said King. "But everybody spoke Cherokee in that region, in that holler we grew up in."

King comes from a long line of Cherokee speakers and didn’t speak English until he entered the public school system at age 5. He said those first days learning a new language was difficult.

"We hadn't heard it that much, maybe on TV. We were around our grandmas and grandpas aunts and uncles." said King.

King is one of 2,000 Cherokee first language speakers the Tribe prioritized last week to receive the vaccine, along with frontline healthcare workers.

Since taking office, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has made preserving and protecting the Cherokee language among his top priorities. In 2019, he passed a $16 million language initiative to encourage more tribal members to learn Cherokee.

"Saving the Cherokee language is among our highest national interests," said Hoskin Jr. "So, losing a Cherokee speaker — and we've lost too many to COVID — means we've lost something so irreplaceable and something that we're working hard to save for future generations."

The Cherokee Nation has lost 25 first language speakers to COVID-19, including King's brother and two cousins.

Hoskin Jr. says they're doing outreach in the Cherokee language urging elders to get tested and wear their masks. One testimony includes Lawrence Panther, another first speaker who recovered after contracting the coronavirus. In a video Cherokee Nation shares, he urges people to wear a mask and get tested.

Tribal leaders have instituted a mask mandate on the tribe’s 14 county district, and its healthcare system is providing mass testing to its citizens. But Oklahoma’s numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate.

For 52-year-old King, it's been tough not getting to see relatives and friends at the small church he goes to in Rocky Ford. Being on Zoom, he said, just isn't the same. So, when he found out he was eligible to get the vaccine, he didn't hesitate.

"I thought when it first came out, it was going to be real old elders, you know, the ones in their 60s and 70s to get it," said King. "But, when I heard there was going to try to get the speakers too, well, I said, 'Sign me up!'"

The Cherokee Nation, like many tribes, is seeing the number of fluent speakers steadily diminish, a problem COVID-19 accelerated. For teachers like King, the tribe’s efforts to protect its speakers are incredibly important to preserving a key component of its nationhood and identity: their language.

"It'll survive as long as there's people like me and some of the speakers out there that can keep teaching them. But, you know, we all get old and we've all got an expiration date on us somewhere," said King.

Even as vaccine distribution begins, health officials are cautioning people not to let their guard down, especially during the holiday. Hoskin Jr and those who run the Nation's health department say it's crucial if people want to see the story of the Cherokee Nation continue.

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