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Meet The People Fighting To Save Endangered Languages In North Carolina

Marty Richardson was in high school when he started a deep dive into the history of his people:  the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. He emerged from dusty library archives with the epiphany that his ancestors spoke Tutelo-Saponi, a language that had since nearly disappeared. 

Since then, Richardson has uncovered rare, written documentation of the language and has worked for decades to bring it back to life. He directs the Haliwa-Saponi Historic Legacy Project, an effort to preserve culture and explore heritage languages for the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe in Eastern North Carolina.

In addition to Richardson, host Frank Stasio also speaks with Anna Luisa Daigneault, program director for Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, about the cultural benefits of saving a language and how tools like talking dictionaries can help revive nearly-lost forms of speech.

Cherokee language teacher Gilliam Jackson joins the conversation to share his experience as one of about 200 fluent Cherokee speakers in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He reflects on government policies that nearly stripped the band of fluent speakers and the lengths it will take to carry fluency to the next generation. 

Interview Highlights

Marty Richardson on how he started the search for his ancestral roots and language: 

We had moved up to Baltimore for my parents to find jobs and things like that. And so a lot of times people would ask me: who I am, what I am. When you come into processes like that, and folks kind of questioning who you are, you really take a look at yourself and say: Well, what do I know about myself? … That kind of set me off on a journey to find out more about my people, about my Haliwa-Saponi people. 

Richardson on incorporating the Tutelo-Saponi language into music: 

We started Stoney Creek in 1993, and we've probably composed I'd say maybe 500 songs or more in the language. And then from that we have other drum groups too that have adopted that, or [people] from our tribe or even from other tribes that have used that language in their songs. And so I would say that there are probably 800 songs out here that are in the language. 

Anna Luisa Daigneault on the languages that once existed in North Carolina:

At the time of European contact, they were roughly about 25 or so indigenous languages — hard to know exactly because many of them have gone extinct. And they belong to three different large language families: Algonquin, Iroquoian and Siouan … Many of these languages disappeared in North Carolina as a result of the speakers dying of infectious diseases and warfare.

Gilliam Jackson on how he maintained the Cherokee language as a child: 

Given the time that I was in school around the 1950s, the government had a policy of assimilation, and they actually wanted to do away with the Native American. And one way of doing that was to put [us] in schools and forbid us any kind of cultural practices, any kind of religion, any kind of language, anything to do with our culture inherited. But it seemed like in this particular community that I grew up, we had two incredible teachers Albert and Louise Lee … Our teachers, even though [they] were government employees, they didn't follow and adhere to a government policy of assimilation. They actually encouraged us to use the language. 

Jackson on the effects of the first years of a Cherokee immersion school: 

We started with infants, and we started speaking to them exclusively in the language. And it  was wonderful and very successful. The kids — as they grew older and older and they began to pick up the language — they would play in the playground, and they would argue in the playground. They would be mad at each other in the playground [in Cherokee]. But also the laughter was unique in that the laughter was similar to the laughter of fluent speakers. Even when they took naps, you know kids talk sometimes, they would be speaking Cherokee.

NOTE: This program originally aired on February 12, 2019.

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.