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.