Cherokee language

A young woman stands in front of a lake holding two small rainbow pride flags.
Lilly Knoepp

Every year, members of the United Methodist Church gather for their annual Western North Carolina conference at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. Top of mind at this year’s meeting was the Traditional Plan, a ruling enacted at the general conference in late February that enshrines punitive measures to reinforce the church’s ban on gay clergy and prohibition against gay weddings. The Traditional Plan has emphasized a growing divide between conservative and progressive camps within the United Methodist Church.

Kindergarten students TT Askew, Alicia Garcia Elvira, Haylen Lovelace and Mercy Nelms are students in Jakeli Swimmer's Cherokee language and culture class at Robbinsville Elementary.
Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

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. 

Kindergarten students TT Askew, Alicia Garcia Elvira, Haylen Lovelace and Mercy Nelms are students in Jakeli Swimmer's Cherokee language and culture class at Robbinsville Elementary.
Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

Jakeli Swimmer keeps a little black notebook nearby while he teaches. The worn pages of the spiral notebook are covered in his scrawled notes and doodles of legends he has heard since childhood. The notes are vocabulary he has written in English, his first language, and words he’s learned in Cherokee, his native language.

Jakeli Swimmer in front of his classroom.
Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

Of the nearly 16,000 enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, fewer than 300 can fluently speak the Cherokee language. Most of those speakers are over the age of 50 and think their heritage language is on the brink of extinction.