UNC Asheville Students Speak at Cherokee Language Symposium

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Students Speak at Cherokee Language Symposium

Sophomore Will Osborne is working hard to learn the Cherokee language—but for him, it’s about something more than just practical use.

“There’s something that we learned about in anthropology called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” he explains, “which states that a person’s language directly affects their worldview. So for example, if you grow up in a culture without gendered pronouns, there are going to be less distinctions that you’re going to perceive between genders.

“And so the Cherokee language, to me, is a whole different insight into humanity, and if we lose that then we lose part of what it means to be human. Cherokee has this unique worldview that can only survive as long as there are people who speak the language.”

Osborne was one of four UNC Asheville students who spoke at a prestigious conference held at the Museum of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina in April 2017. The Second Language Learners Cherokee Language Symposium brought together several universities from around the nation including Stanford University, Western Carolina University, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“All the schools that are studying Cherokee languages in undergraduate research were invited to Cherokee for the weekend,” Osborne explains, “to meet fluent speakers and go to Cherokee landmarks. There aren’t a ton of people who know Cherokee, so if you’re learning the language it’s a struggle to find other people you can practice it with.”

Students were asked to speak on panel, organized by Gil Jackson, a lecturer in modern languages and literatures at UNC Asheville, focusing on their experience with learning the language. The weekend-long conference included tours of native Cherokee land, conversations with locals, and events meant to highlight Cherokee living in the modern day.

“After the panel,” explains UNC Ashville junior Priscilla Squirrel, “they took us out to Snowbird, which is a community outside of Cherokee in Robinsville. We ate traditional food and talked with the Cherokee people about Cherokee history. Then they took us to a stomp dance which is a traditional night time dance, performed only on certain Saturdays.”

Senior Taylor Heise chose to learn the language as an insight into Cherokee culture. Heise says that “the language and the culture are so completely intertwined. Everything about Cherokee is such an oral tradition and history, and I think if you lose the language and the way it sounds then you lose the entire culture. If you can’t tell the stories and the myths and the history of the culture in the language, then you just lose it all.”

Heise, a graduating senior, took the course with the intent to pursue the new American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor at UNC Asheville, something the speakers seem more than excited for. “I’ve heard that they’re developing a Native American Studies minor for quite some time now,” says Heise, “and so I was like ‘I’m taking Cherokee language; I just have to do that.’ I took level one last semester and it was really fantastic. It was really cool to learn some of the culture and hear the sounds of the language so I had to take the level two course as well.”

The American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor, beginning in the fall of 2017, will allow Cherokee language courses to count toward credit requirements. More information regarding the minor will be released in the future, but for now students may sign up for AIIS 200: Introduction to American Indian and Indigenous Studies and AIIS 210: American Indian Film Studies for this upcoming fall semester.