A Tulsa-based nonprofit record company helps keep the Cherokee language alive by getting kids singing.
The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the United States, with over 390,000 tribal citizens worldwide. However, only about 2,000 people are fluent in Cherokee.
The reason goes back almost 200 years. When the Spaniards first encountered the Cherokee in the 1500s, the tribe lived in what is now the southeastern United States, from Tennessee to Georgia and North Carolina. The tribe then migrated south from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada about 3,500 years ago, and the Cherokee became the sole speakers of the southern Iroquoian language.
When the United States drove the Cherokee into Oklahoma through the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the expansion that the Cherokee language had been undergoing for nearly a century before was abruptly halted. Many of its speakers died under the brutal conditions of forced migration, while teachers at the boarding schools in which the Cherokee were forced to “civilize” them washed out children’s mouths with soap if they were caught speaking. their mother tongue.
In Tulsa, decorated Cherokee filmmaker Jeremy Charles is working to revitalize the language. In collaboration with Horton Records, a nonprofit also based in Tulsa, Charles and Horton Records President Brian Horton is set to release an album in August comprised entirely of contemporary Cherokee sung music. The release of Anvdvnelisgi which roughly translates to “interpreter” in English, during Labor Day weekend – the 70and annual Cherokee National Day – will mark the first time that many of its contemporary artists will perform original music in the language. The album will be available on all platforms and outlets worldwide.
As well as featuring beautiful and historic language, the hope is that the album will get the kids singing along.
“New Zealand Maori are the best example of native language retention. They have this whole movie and music scene that is mainstream. Even Lorde, from her latest album, recorded four of her songs in Maori. This is what we need for our children,” Charles says. “We have a rich tradition of gospel music, but a lot of it is traditional hymns. It’s not like people just sing those kinds of songs – people don’t really share them. Anvdvnelisgi can change that.
Charles had the idea to make the album in March of last year and, thanks to his deep connections both in the music industry and in the Cherokee Nation, he immediately came up with a long list of potential performers for the album, which ended up featuring 12 The only problem was that Charles didn’t know the music business, and that’s where Brian Horton came in.
“I have known Jeremy for some time and we have worked together in different capacities. Tulsa is a close-knit community. I think one of the things that’s really cool about Tulsa is that it’s not a competitive environment,” Horton says. “And Tulsa is known for its volunteerism and philanthropy – it’s part of its brand and its fabric.”
Tulsa’s signature philanthropy also played a role in this project, with the Zarrow Families Foundation Commemoration Fund providing a $50,000 grant to support the effort.
While Horton is a pro at producing albums, the Cherokee element was new to him and to many musicians as well. While two of the artists on the album are Cherokee speakers, the other 10 were planning to work with fluent speakers and historians of the language to write and translate their songs, which was no small feat.
Cherokee is considered a Class IV language, which means that alongside other languages like Mandarin and Cantonese, it is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. In its written form, Cherokee, like Japanese, uses a syllabary. It is made up of 85 distinct characters that represent the full spectrum of Cherokee sounds with one character per syllable.
“It’s the most involved I’ve ever been in the language,” says Colby Luper, a 26-year-old Cherokee member and singer-songwriter who learned with an affinity for metal music who learned to perform his metal song in Cherokee during the album. “There are all these different metal bands from Scandinavia that incorporate Viking and pagan culture into their art. I’ve always wondered why no one I know has done this with Native American culture.
While her song was about Cherokee folklore, translating it from English to Cherokee took many months of practice. With coaching, Luper learned common phrases and pronunciation and tweaked his song lyrics to work in the Cherokee language. The project inspired him to continue the language learning he started.
“I feel like I have some momentum now that I’ve made connections with [Cherokee speakers] and studied online courses and Cherokee continuing education resources,” he says, hoping the album will inspire kids to follow in his footsteps.
According to Luper, this debut album may just be the beginning. “I’m really excited for people to hear the final product,” he says. “It’s really something that everyone involved can be proud of. I hope this will make a difference in people getting excited about the language. We’ve already started whispering among ourselves about version two.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. His work has been published in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news, etc. She holds a master’s degree in social design, with a focus on intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and fine arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.