Losing Cherokee
Story and Visuals by Sean McInnis
On a blistering-hot day in late June the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian tribe gather for an early Fourth of July Powwow. They are dancing on the last remaining tribal land inhabited by Cherokees.
Located in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, three hours west of Charlotte, and an hour and a half southeast of Gatlinburg, Cherokee, North Carolina is a hub for tourism and an area rooted deep in Cherokee history that goes back thousands of years.

Anglers set up folding chairs at the foot of the pristine Cherokee fishing spots stocked with trout by sunrise.Tours begin at Oconaluftee Village, a historic representation of a traditional Cherokee village where tourists learn the deep rooted history of the Cherokee tribe.

Visitors watch reenactments, walk through traditional Cherokee housing, and items at Oconaluftee Indian Village

As spectators and dancers approach the Powwow fairgrounds, the intense drumming only grows louder. The busy event features rows of tents selling handmade Cherokee goods, a line of food trucks with various Cherokee delicacies and the main attraction, a large field filled with dancers sporting colorful outfits, ordained with personal ornaments.

What is unknown to most at this celebration of culture is the part that is in jeopardy.
Throughout most of their history, Cherokees spoke their native language. After a written version of the language was created in 1821 by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah, most Cherokees adopted that as well.

“From what I understand, we have about 150 fluent speakers left,” John John Grant, a cultural specialist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian said.

By the time the written language was created, much of the original Cherokee lands had vastly shrunk due to treaties with the United States and the large number of white settlers moving westward.

Despite the Cherokees' development of a constitution and a newspaper, the hopes to legitimize their government in the eyes of the United States were lost after the passing of The Indian Removal Act marking the beginning of the Trail of Tears.

The Cherokee people kept speaking and writing their language in the 20th century, but it began to fade, replaced by English. In an effort to assimilate Native Americans into western culture boarding schools were created, and speaking and writing in Cherokee were prohibited. Over time, the language began to fade away.

“English was the foreign thing,” said Bo Lossiah, the curriculum & instruction supervisor of the Kituwah Preservation Program, speaking on how the language was different 100 years ago.

The late afternoon sun was replaced by dark storm clouds above the Powwow, delaying the event. This didn’t bother anyone for very long, and as soon as the rain stopped and smokey mist began to rise off the surrounding mountains, the Powwow continued. Jingle, Traditional, Grass, and Fancy Dancing styles all carried on as they had for centuries.

The dancers moved rhythmically while the drummers provided the pulse. The Powwow paused again around 9:30 pm for roughly 23 minutes. Everyone at the Powwow stood in place, gazing at the sky admiring the fireworks as they exploded over the fairgrounds.

The 4th of July Powwow stretched into the night, featuring Jingle, Traditional, Grass, and Fancy Dancing styles.

Cherokee Letters
According to Cherokees Writing the Keetoowah Way, an online resource which catalogs and translates Cherokee documents written throughout the 1900s, "these documents include letters, teachings, instructions, recollections, social commentaries, stories, histories, lists, church records, and more — the quotidian literacies of Cherokee life." Audio to the Cherokee pronunciation is provided below each letter.

See credits at bottom

Letter to unidentified recipient by Wadi Tsuwi (1935)
I went to town last Sunday and when I got back, it was time for lunch. That is not the reason I did not go to Sunday School. They had a beautiful worship. I received your letter this afternoon. After I read the letter, it made me feel so bad that my family is not well. But I am glad that you say you are doing alright. I will be grateful if you can do something for Star. If you can go to see Star, would you tell him that I hope to be at my place on the twentieth. If you can help Tsiwiyi. It would be so good. I will be hoping you can. I know how it is when you don’t sleep. Star is saying that something is bothering him. He is in real need for somebody to help him. This you can do. Star does not know how to put a stop this. These night stalkers that scare them—if you know a cure for it, you can help my family. It would be so good if you can help the old lady to sleep at night. Send me a letter informing me that you did the medical verse. Now I am ending my letter and sending you greeting, my beloved brother, Tsali Wadi. Let’s hope to see each other, if it’s the Lord Jesus’ will.

I, Tsuwi Wadi, write this to you. I am tremendously grateful that I can write this letter to you. I am truly not feeling good this evening, my friend. He was getting hit earlier. It cannot always be they drink whiskey. I always pity them. The chief is always reprimanding us for our drinking whiskey. They cannot believe him. As for me, I believe the chief as he says.

Creative Commons / Cherokees Writing the Keetooway Way

Gus Hummingbird Letter to Davis Standingdeer (1925)
Now, my friend, my brother, Dewisi Standingdeer, I have prepared to write to you a few words, not too much, just this: How are you doing today? I haven't heard anything from you. That is why I inquired about you and heard that you are struggling against the Constitutions of 1835-36 and 1846 that we have brought to the forefront, and which belongs to us and to our children as genuine, true Cherokees. The governmental official, that is, the superintendent, who watches over us is going to work according to the Constitution of 1835. Now, he must do for us what the government said it would do.

Now, we are presently making preparation concerning those who have signed their names to the Constitution of 1835. We are requesting full financial support for our representatives. When our leaders, the chiefs, leave for Washington, D.C., we will get the money ready. You and I must get this ready for them. Because there are so many, we must do this. It is time now to collect the money. Each man should donate one dollar and every woman should donate fifty cents. Now, I am saying to all of you, my brothers and sisters, we must all stand up, and with all our power, we must help one another. Let us speak with one voice. Let us love one another. I am saying this to you.

In this, the month of December, the Congress will sit down in Washington where the leaders will go to work. That is when our men who are representatives will depart, but only if we provide the money for them. If we take a stand, we cannot fail. It is up to us now to go to work because if we do not, our children will be defeated, and so will we. We must do our best. Now, that is all I have written, ldagvsda Galagina [name], leader of the community named Galagino.

Now, write a letter back to me as quickly as possible—or if you can visit me in person, my friend, I will be glad.

Creative Commons / Cherokees Writing the Keetooway Way

Located a mile from the celebration sits the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program’s Adult Cherokee Education Center. It is here where the Cherokee language continues to thrive through fluent speakers and others who are attempting to learn.

Lossiah says today, children in Cherokee schools learn in Cherokee as well as English, but there are not enough fluent speakers to go around, and most fluent speakers today are above the age of 60. While educating children is important, he says we must educate adults as well in order to have enough teachers in the future.

It is Thursday, August 3, and the education center is full of the rich sounds of the Cherokee language. Fluent speakers happily greet each other and converse freely at the Cherokee Speakers Gathering. Participants connect with each other and line up to get a plate of mashed potatoes, turkey and green beans.

“That event is more social, and learners are encouraged to attend and participate in demonstrations, discussions, and readings. Also, we eat,” said Lossiah.

Attendants lined up at the Cherokee Speakers Gathering to get their plate of food, after the meal, students continued their work and fluent speakers adapted new works into Cherokee.

After the meal, the real work began, in a room full of fluent Cherokee speakers, a list of English words are written on a board. It was up to these speakers to translate each one into Cherokee. One by one, the words are described and debated in Cherokee and English, until a verdict had been reached. The word is then enshrined into the language.

"I'll guide you, and I'll collect enough fluent speakers so you can learn," Lossiah said.

Down the long hallway of the adult education center each room is filled with adult students passionately practicing words and phrases through various activities.

“Not everyone can be accepted into the adult education program, because so much time is needed to learn the language, the school must provide funding to the students,” said Tohisgi Climbingbear, a second-year Cherokee teacher.

Climbingbear says that they receive many applicants and are unable to accept them all. But they are growing, he says, and since the program has opened, they have received more applicants each year.

“The future, it looks bright,” said Climbingbear.

Love Letter

Beloved, do not hate me. Beloved I will write to you what I am thinking. Please send me a letter to read about what you are thinking.

Are you going to send me the dresses? I will be looking for them. Next week send them to me and send a letter about what you are thinking. Don’t forget that I live until I die. Uwedasati, you belong to me, Dayeni. I want only us two to live together, excluding all others, making our own decisions.

Creative Commons / Cherokees Writing the Keetooway Way

Cherokees Writing the Keetoowah Way Credits
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/
Disclaimer: I have in now way altered these letters or changed the translations provided by the
Letter to unidentified recipient by Wadi Tsuwi (1935):
  • Ellen Cushman: Editor
  • Jeffrey Bourns: Annotator
  • Opal Foreman: Translator
  • Melissa Torres: Annotator

Gus Hummingbird Letter to Davis Standingdeer (1925):
  • Clara Proctor: Translator
  • Jeffrey Bourns: Annotator
  • Ellen Cushman: Editor
  • Patrick Del Percio: Translator
  • Melissa Torres: Annotator
  • John Chewey: Translator

Love Letter:
  • Clara Proctor: Translator
  • Ellen Cushman: Editor
  • Jeffrey Bourns: Annotator
  • Jack Frederick Kilpatrick: Shadow of Sequoyah 1965
  • Melissa Torres: Annotator
  • Anna Gritts Kilpatrick: Shadow of Sequoyah 1965