How do you bring back a language that just a few generations ago, the federal government sent people to re-education schools to forget? A language that was washed out of students’ mouths with soap, nearly erased from the language’s natural community, and then left to be forgotten?
Professor Ben Frey at UNC’s American Studies Department is grappling with this question. Frey is working to increase use of the Cherokee language in Cherokee communities as a way of revitalizing the broader Cherokee culture.
“I look to the language a lot for understanding the culture and being sort of an instruction to how Cherokees view the world, and I think it provides a certain groundedness that I was seeking when I was growing up,” Frey said.
Frey has studied endangered languages and cultures extensively. A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Frey was raised in Birmingham, Alabama where he experienced little to no exposure to Native American and Cherokee culture outside of his home. He started learning Cherokee at 20 years old.
To those that work with Frey, such as Sara Snyder, assistant professor and director of Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Language Program, Frey’s work is important for its representation of diversity in higher academia.
“Native people are tremendously underrepresented in academia, and just by virtue of him being (in academia) is great for representation," Snyder said. "He is also doing a wonderful job of sharing his culture and knowledge with non-native people, so it’s sort of increasing our knowledge of each other."
Frey teaches classes on the Cherokee language and Cherokee culture at UNC. Every week Frey runs an AniKahwi (Cherokee Coffee hour) at Abernethy Hall. The hour is a space where only Cherokee is spoken and is open to all UNC faculty, staff and students. Frey intends for the coffee hour to help make learning Cherokee manageable. Frey also does work on Cherokee reservations near the Qualla Boundary in Western N.C.
“Ben’s work excites me because he has the essence of an academic who’s working in a community, collaborating with learning that matters to real people,” said UNC Department of American Studies Professor Timothy Marr.
While the battle to bring the endangered Cherokee language back into common use is a difficult one, Frey seems to be in it for the long haul.
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