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Tribe hopes to fund Cherokee as foreign language class in public schools

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is urging the state to formally license Cherokee language teachers, enabling Cherokee courses taught in public schools off the reservation to count toward a student’s foreign language requirement.

Earlier this month, tribal and school officials met with representatives from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to finalize the steps in the process.

The move is part of tribe’s push to revitalize the language and preserve the Eastern Band’s cultural identity.

“Salvaging the language salvages our tribe. It continues to identify us as a unique people, and it continues to protect the sovereignty of who we are as a nation within a nation,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

The tribe’s language efforts include everything from street signs in Cherokee to language emersion programs for infants — as well as required Cherokee language classes for grades K-12 school on the reservation.

However, not all enrolled members of the tribe live in Cherokee and attend school on the reservation, so the tribe hopes to offer language courses in public schools in neighboring counties as well.

Cherokee language and history classes are currently taught in the public schools in Graham County, where a small satellite portion of the reservation lies. The tribe foots the bill for the instructors’ salaries, but the classes do not fulfill the state’s language requirements.

By creating a teacher certification test that meets the standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the tribe hopes to get Cherokee included on Department of Public Instruction’s list of languages for study.

“We want the language to be recognized and credit to be given in all North Carolina schools,” Hicks said. “Right now in Swain County, you can get credit in Spanish and Chinese but not in Cherokee. That’s what we want to change.”

Dr. Hartwell Francis, chair of Western Carolina University’s Cherokee language program, has taken the lead role in creating a teacher certification test that meets ACTFL as well as state education standards. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma went through a similar process and has proven a useful model for Francis to draw from.

Renissa Walker, director of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, which oversees the tribe’s language revitalization efforts, said the Eastern Band feels it’s important for the tribe to develop and administer the test themselves.

“We want to maintain ownership of the test,” Walker said.

Walker has helped organize a panel of fluent Cherokee speakers who will be trained by ACTFL and DIP to administer and grade the tests for language teachers. Once that is done, the tribe will start the work of testing its first round of 25 or more Cherokee language teachers, most of whom speak Cherokee as a second language.

Walker said the tribe hopes to have the certification process wrapped up by the end of the school year.

But there is another hurdle in the process: the status of the Cherokee language in American culture. DPI considers Cherokee a foreign language for administrative purposes, but the tribe objects to the classification.

“We’re not a foreign language like the other languages taught in the high schools,” Walker said. “It’s ironic that the oldest language in North Carolina would be the last one to get recognized by the schools.”

Walker said the tribe doesn’t blame the state, however.

“It’s not their fault. The responsibility lies on our shoulders. We’ve been aggressive over the past five years, but if we’d started this process 20 years ago, there would be fluent speakers of child-bearing age today,” Walker said.

Swain County schools have expressed interest in introducing a certified Cherokee language program in the future, and they’ll offer a language and history course this coming year that’s similar to the one offered in Graham County.

Hicks said the tribe would pay the salaries of Cherokee teachers in neighboring counties where a critical mass of enrolled members go to school once the state has approved the teacher certification process.

Walker said her department is working to get the project finished by the start of the new school year.

“We’re moving quickly,” Walker said. “The fall is our goal.”

Once the certification test is created and approved and an oversight panel is created, the process will have to be verified by a state specialist in education research methodology before being submitted for final approval to N.C. DPI.

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