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.