In Wichita, New Class Helps Preserve Cherokee Language
The 50 or so students gathered at the Mid-America All-Indian Center this past Saturday made up what was probably the largest class Josh Webster has seen in this almost 20 years of teaching.
“The one I thought was huge before this one was 11,” he says.
The students are here for what is the first of 10 free Cherokee language classes now being offered at the center. Webster is one of just a handful of certified Cherokee language instructors in the country — and at 35, he’s among the youngest.
Webster grew up in Oklahoma speaking Cherokee with his family. It’s the language he feels most comfortable with.
“I come from a very, very traditional family that believes that our language and culture should be a part of our everyday life,” he says. “I'm glad I'm still young and that I had the opportunity to be raised with my great aunt to where I could hear Cherokee every day. Not everyone has that resource available to them.”
Of the 350,000 citizens in federally recognized Cherokee tribes today, it’s estimated that less than 10 percent of them speak the language, and even fewer can read or write it. Years of forced assimilation by the U.S. government led to the decline of the Cherokee language; it’s considered “definitely endangered” by the United Nations.
Webster says in recent years, there has been an effort to reverse the loss: through children’s cartoons created by Cherokee Nation, through new education programs, and through classes like his.
“We're losing so many languages every day,” he says. “So I try so hard to just keep it alive.”
Webster and his family recently moved from Oklahoma to Augusta; he says he didn't think he was going to get to continue teaching, until the opportunity came up with the Mid-America All-Indian Center.
Webster’s class is a mix of Cherokee and non-Cherokee students; many of his past classes have been predominately Cherokee, but he says everyone is welcome to learn.
“Even if it isn't their culture,” he says, “I'm extremely flattered that they love it.”
Cherokee is a difficult language — it’s tonal, so the slightest shift in pronunciation can convey a completely different meaning. And it’s polysynthetic: One word can convey a lot of information.
But Webster says at the end of the 10-week course, students will be able to greet each other and even hold small conversations in Cherokee; students who attend all classes will receive a certificate.
Depending on interest, Webster says it’s possible he’ll go on to teach a more advanced class after this one.
“It's just a part of me, and I want to share that with as many people as I can,” he says. “And because of the decline, I feel like I should work more now than I ever felt.”
The next class is this Saturday, Dec. 15, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Mid-America All-Indian Center.