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Among many Native American communities, their languages are in danger

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Language is how we connect with the world. It's how we understand who we are, how we pass on heritage. It's how I'm talking to you right now. But languages need people who know them to survive. And among many Native American tribes, their languages are in danger. The Cherokee Nation, one of the largest tribes in the U.S., estimates that there remain only 2,000 people for whom Cherokee is their first language, and most of them are over the age of 70. Last week, the Biden administration announced an effort to address this at the Tribal Nations Summit, putting forth a draft of a 10-year national plan to revitalize Native languages.

Chuck Hoskin Jr. has served as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation since 2019 and has made the preservation of the Cherokee language a priority. He spoke at the summit, and he's with us now to tell us more about the initiative and why he thinks it matters. Chief Hoskin, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHUCK HOSKIN JR: Oh, glad to be here.

MARTIN: Chief, in 2010, the National Congress of American Indians declared that, in essence, this is an emergency. They estimated that by 2050, only 20 Native languages will still be spoken. So I apologize if this is a painful question, but everybody doesn't know this history. Can you tell us, why are these languages disappearing?

HOSKIN: Well, they're disappearing in large measure because of the policies of the United States over the last two centuries-plus. I mean, that's the truth. It's a difficult conversation for the country to have. But, I mean, the United States went on a purposeful mission to erode culture and lifeways as a ways to diminish Native Americans. And it was a very effective policy over the centuries. Now, that doesn't mean the United States is actively trying to do that today or they've actively been trying to do it for the past few decades. But there's a lot of injury that's been imposed. And there's a lot of healing that needs to happen in the form of language preservation.

MARTIN: When did you start to understand this language as a vital piece of retaining - not just retaining heritage but restoring culture and dignity?

HOSKIN: I am like most Cherokees. In fact, I tell Cherokee audiences all the time that most Cherokees are like their chief. They don't speak Cherokee. And that's true of me. It wasn't until probably in the last, you know, six or seven years talking to our language preservationists that it really hit home what it means. And they really educated me on the fact that, look, Chief, language, you may not speak it, Chief, but it's in your heart. And it connects you more uniquely than anything else in the world to our ancestry.

MARTIN: The draft plan has four pillars, and one of them is, in fact, recognition of how the U.S. government historically erased Native languages. Why do you think that's important?

HOSKIN: Well, it's important because we have to recognize what the problem is. I mean, Native languages just didn't erode organically. They eroded because of things like the federal boarding school policy, which, of course, has been prominent in the news in the last year, in which the language was figuratively and sometimes literally beaten out of children. And we just know that this happened. And then we know that the dispossession of tribes of their lands and resources, I mean, the Cherokee story is one of dispossession and forced removal and having to rebuild and then being dismantled at different times in history. You can talk about the Indian Child Welfare Act in the 1970s was designed to remedy the dispossession of our children, which also had a diminishing and damaging effect on languages. So talking about that's important. I also think it's important for the United States to recognize that there is a path forward, but it's going to take a lot of resources. And I think we're talking about healing an injury by, you know, putting resources into language preservation.

MARTIN: So the goal is obviously to increase the number of people who speak Cherokee. It would have to be - at this point, wouldn't it be as a second language?

HOSKIN: It would be. So second language fluent speakers is our goal, but we want to achieve a new generation of people who are fluent. There's really a couple of challenges. One is, how do you create this new generation of speakers so that you're creating more speakers than you're losing? Well, that's difficult. That turns out to be not even as challenging as the second part of the equation, which is you have to have the demand for speakers. You have to have a way for people to make a living and live a life using the language.

We know we can teach people to speak Cherokee. We know it's very labor intensive, resource intensive. But is there an opportunity for them to then use the language? And that's the really challenging part. But we're doing things in the creative arts. We're doing things and teaching as we expand our schools. There's a way to do it, but we're up against the clock, Michel. I mean, right now, the biggest enemy to the Cherokee language isn't what it used to be - colonization, dispossession of our lands, boarding schools. Those were all tough. The toughest thing now is the passage of time and the fragility of human life. And that's what we're up against right now.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that? Say more.

HOSKIN: You know, we've got - most Cherokee fluent speakers are over the age of 70. And if that's the case, you can sort of do the math on if we don't create this new generation of Cherokee speakers, that chain will have been broken. And so we feel like that's what we're up against. The clock is ticking, but we do have the resources now at the Cherokee Nation to put really the most historic effort forward we've ever put forth. But the United States did this to us. They need to pay to remedy it. And there's plenty of resources in this country to do it. I think the Biden administration is putting really a strong effort forward towards that with this plan. But we've got to see resources on the table to get this done.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Chief, are you studying Cherokee yourself? I know you're busy but are you studying it yourself?

HOSKIN: I study it, I would say casually, because I visit our communities. I mean, today I'm going out into a community where there's a lot of language being spoken, and I think I'll be tested by a lot of elders when they greet me. And they sometimes have a lot of fun with the chief when they see me coming because they will start speaking to me in Cherokee knowing I can't keep up. They have fun with it, and I do, too. But I think over time I'm picking up more words here or there. I try to use it in my day-to-day life because I want to show our people that it's important enough for the chief to want to learn some more.

MARTIN: And also the humility of being willing to learn.

HOSKIN: That's right. I always say that I'm willing to learn.

MARTIN: Which you have to be, right? Learning a language, kids are sponges. They pick it.

HOSKIN: They do. I will tell you, my proudest moments as chief is when I go in to our language center and I see these little kids speaking circles around their chief. And that's a point of pride for me, because I know one of these days a kid that comes through that school is going to be the next fluent-speaking chief for the Cherokee Nation. And when she's the chief of the Cherokee Nation, speaking to her people in Cherokee, that's going to be a glorious day.

MARTIN: Chief, do you want to say goodbye in Cherokee?

HOSKIN: Yeah. It's (speaking Cherokee). And I can tell you what that means. It means, we will see each other again - because we don't have a word for goodbye in Cherokee.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. Thank you. That's lovely. Gosh, makes me cry.

HOSKIN: That's one of the few words I know, but...

MARTIN: That's a good one. That's a good one to know. Yeah. That was Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. He is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. He's talking to us from his home office in Tahlequah, Okla., which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Chief Hoskin, thanks so much for talking with us in English, but next time, perhaps in Cherokee.

HOSKIN: We'll do it. (Speaking Cherokee). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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