Cherokee class preserves native NC language

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Students listen to Tom Belt, an instructor of Cherokee who teaches five different levels of the class at UNC via webcam.

UNC’s foreign language requirement is a misnomer for students taking Cherokee classes — they are studying the only language offered by the University that is native to North America.

Tom Belt, a visiting instructor of Cherokee at Western Carolina University, said the classes were first offered at UNC in the fall of 2009 in an effort to revitalize the language because it is close to dying out — there are only a few hundred speakers in North Carolina.

“We would be here, still be Cherokees, but the central core of our culture would be gone,” he said.

Belt teaches five levels of the class at UNC via webcam.

Chris Teuton, an American studies professor and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said it was important for the flagship university of the state to not only teach, but also fight for the heritage language of the 14,000 Cherokee people living in North Carolina.

Teuton said the demand to learn the language is here.

“It’s been full enrollment almost all semesters,” he said.

Belt said his first language was Cherokee, and he only learned English when he went to school as a young boy.

People mistakenly think the language is a word-for-word code for English, but Belt said he believes it is a reflection of the Cherokee perspective.

“We interpret the world as a place where there’s meaning to everything, and everything is alive. So there’s a kinetic part to it,” he said.

Ben Frey, a postdoctoral student in the department of American studies, said attempts to date the spoken language have placed its origin to at least 3,500 years ago.

“That’s more than double the English language from Beowulf to now,” he said.

The Cherokee syllabary, or alphabet, was invented around the 1820s.

Frey said a lack of Cherokee scholars leaves the nation’s historical perspective absent.

He said professors are trying to build off the success of the class by starting a weekly Cherokee Coffee Hour, which will begin Friday at 2 p.m. in Abernethy Hall.

“It’s our attempt at forming a community around the group,” Teuton said.

Frey said the language needs young speakers because the only native speakers that remain are either older and spoke it as they grew up, or very young and part of an immersion program.

“It’s plugging this big hole in the community,” he said.

Frey said these efforts are necessary, because at the rate the language is used now, it would be dead within 25 years. But he added that the decline of Cherokee has slowed greatly.

Belt said the knowledge of those who came before will be lost if the language dies.

“Our tribes won’t be the same,” he said.

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