on the Cherokee experience; language, culture and identity; and future plans at UNC …
Dr. Benjamin Frey is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He now teaches Cherokee language and sociolinguistics courses in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
(1) Tell us a little about your involvement with the Cherokee language and revitalization. When did you decide to learn Cherokee and what motivated you? How did you go about learning it? How did that experience change your perspective on Cherokee culture and identity, and affect your sense of self?
I always knew our people had a language – I remember my mom telling me about it when I was little, but thinking that nobody really spoke it anymore. My mom told me that her mother and grandmother spoke it when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying, but they never taught mom or any of her siblings to speak it. So I always had this idea that I wanted to learn, but I didn’t really know how. The closest I got was a little book called Cherokee Words with Pictures, some cassette tapes, and a phrase book or two. Then in high school I started learning German.
When I was a junior in high school I took the national German exam, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG) and its German sister-organization, the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (PAD). I got the highest score in Alabama and won a free trip to Germany for a month. It was at that point that I realized I had a real talent for languages.
When I got to college I decided to pursue German as a major, and soon discovered linguistics classes. I realized that my passion for language could expand beyond German, and I thought, “It isn’t fair that I didn’t learn Cherokee growing up.” My mom had told me that one of the reasons her mother hadn’t passed the language on was because when my grandmother was young, she had been sent to boarding school and punished for speaking Cherokee. Because I understood that as my birthright – I should have learned the language from birth – I didn’t think it was acceptable that I couldn’t learn it, especially if I had a natural talent for languages.
Over the summer after my sophomore year, I told my mom I wanted to stay with my uncle in Cherokee, NC and try to learn the Cherokee language. At the time, some cousins of mine, Eddie and Jean Bushyhead, were in charge of the tribe’s language program. I asked Eddie if he would help me and he agreed. Eddie and Jean’s father, Robert Bushyhead, had been a consultant to Dr. Bill Cook, a linguist who did his dissertation research on the Cherokee language in 1979. Even though Robert had passed on already, Eddie still had a grammar book that Bill and Robert had written as a side project to the dissertation.
That grammar book was revelatory for me, because it was the first instance I had ever seen of someone even talking about Cherokee having a grammar. It went beyond phrase books and presented a systematic way of understanding how the language worked. I was enthralled, and I worked through the grammar book daily for the whole summer. After that, I spent a year in Germany working on both my German and my Cherokee. By the time I got back, I had decided to reorganize my great uncle’s grammar book into something that more closely resembled the German textbooks I had used in high school. That became my senior honors thesis, which was very well-received. After that I spent a year at Western Carolina University and had the great privilege of studying with Tom Belt, a fluent Cherokee speaker from Oklahoma. I completed a master/apprentice program with him, during which we spent 45 hours speaking Cherokee exclusively. That was the first time I had heard the language spoken extensively, and I realized that my grammar knowledge alone wasn’t going to bring me to fluency.
The master-apprentice program really increased my fluency, and I also began to get insights into how the language encapsulated Cherokee culture. I started to realize that a lot of my mom’s ways of viewing the world were not unique to her, but were actually Cherokee values. When Tom would independently express ideas that I had learned in childhood, I realized I was part of a tradition I wasn’t even aware of. Cherokee notions of reciprocity, mutual cooperation, respect, and balance came into much sharper focus, and I understood more about how the language encoded ideas about relationships and interconnection. That understanding only continues to deepen today. As I learn more about the language, I also have learned more about the culture, which further reinforces my sense of myself as a Cherokee person. It feels extremely peaceful and rewarding to be grounded in my sense of self and my sense of place. I can’t help but feel my childhood would have been improved immensely by having a connection to my heritage and a sense of belonging.
(2) Why is language important to any community, and especially a minoritized, indigenous one? What do you think would be the impact of the restoration of the Cherokee language on the community, if that could be accomplished? What is both the symbolic and substantial role of the language for Cherokee people? What are the divisions within the community over these issues, and how might they be reconciled?
The language is important for all kinds of reasons. One of the most frequently-cited is connection to our heritage. I definitely think this is important – it gives us a sense of who we are, it connects us to our ancestors and to our traditional ways of knowing and being in the world. However I think that often, people’s tendency to look toward “heritage” positions the value of the language in the past, and I find that terribly problematic. One of the primary reasons one might want to have a connection to the past is so that one could learn from it – what did our ancestors know and how can we carry that forward into the future?
In her book Childhood Disrupted, Donna Nakazawa proposes that physicians would do well to ask patients about any traumatic events that may have occurred in childhood, because there is an established link between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) and autoimmune diseases and other forms of chronic illness, many of which crop up years after the experience is over. This kind of holistic approach to healing is fundamental to an indigenous view of health, and western science could benefit tremendously from it.
Similarly, Native people have been living in their homelands for thousands of years, and have of necessity established sustainable living practices in those places. This knowledge could directly address problems of climate change and pollution, and yet indigenous knowledge is still commonly dismissed as quaint superstition, or at best as an anthropological curiosity. Western science ignores indigenous knowledge to its own (and everyone else’s) peril, and indigenous languages are the primary vessels of indigenous knowledge. Much like the connection between evolutionary adaptability and genetic diversity, the world can benefit tremendously from an abundance of linguistic diversity.
Beyond its potential to do good for western science, the Cherokee language is pivotal to Cherokee identity. Beliefs about the world will be transferred from parents to children regardless of language, but a knowledge about the traditional language of one’s community can provide tremendous insights into where those ideas originated and the thought processes that informed them. What if it isn’t a lack of confidence that drives you to avoid eye contact, but an engrained sense of respect because of a cultural belief that to look someone in the eyes indicates that you don’t believe in them? What if you feel a knee-jerk reaction to reciprocate kind actions not because you are insecure, but because you come from a culture in which reciprocity is a societal cornerstone? These are just two examples of revelations that have given me an increased sense of being okay in the world, and strengthened my awareness of culture. Being more aware has then given me an increased ability to switch between cultures based on context. Adaptability has always been a Cherokee survival tactic.
Today one of the most pressing issues is the fact that the language is no longer being transferred from parent to child in the home, and that it is no longer being used in public domains in the community. In North Carolina, the ancestral homeland of Cherokee people, there are only about 238 people left who speak Cherokee as a first language. The vast majority of those speakers are 65 and older. Although the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a population of around 16,000 citizens, our speaker population is about 1%. That’s critical.
Many speakers have family stories about the abuse they and/or their parents suffered in boarding school – a period during which the United States government actively tried to eradicate indigenous languages – but boarding school was not the sole driver of the language’s decline. The lumber industry, the tourist industry, and widespread relocation for jobs all impacted the social connections people developed, and those connections were generally to people from outside the community who did not speak Cherokee.
Consequently, on top of the trauma people had endured in boarding school and the fear that inspired around speaking the language, many of the day-to-day domains they inhabited shifted to English-speaking ones. After speaking English all day in school, most people transitioned into jobs that were also predominantly English-speaking. Ultimately, English became the language of the home, and children stopped learning it as a first language.
Because speakers are so few and far-between, some have developed a possessive attitude about the language, focusing on (by their estimation) what is “correct” Cherokee. That practice can and does stymie those who are attempting to learn it as a second language, largely because they feel that they simply can’t get it right to the satisfaction of their elders. To make matters worse, elders who speak Cherokee as a first language aren’t accustomed to dealing with second language learners, and, quite naturally, will switch back to English in order to facilitate communication. They don’t know what kind of mistakes will be common to second language learners, or, sometimes, even why someone would want to learn Cherokee as a second language, so they sometimes see no point in allowing a learner to continue speaking. They simply prefer to communicate in a language that is easy for both parties.
Another issue is the lack of widespread understanding of both the language’s structure and of good pedagogy in second language teaching. Most knowledge about the grammar of Cherokee is locked up in linguistics dissertations and articles that are far too dense and jargon-heavy to benefit the average community member. In that sense, the academic community has done a tremendous disservice to Cherokee people, as well as other indigenous groups, making linguists careers on Cherokee data but allowing the Cherokee language to continue in its decline. Even though there are people who speak Cherokee as a first language, the vast majority of these do not possess formal training in the teaching of a second language.
Consequently, most second language education consists of the teacher listing phrases on a whiteboard and practicing pronunciation. Students get very little information about grammar, and little practice with the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Communicative interaction seems to be one piece that is also critically absent, and it is easy for people to get sidetracked in the form of the language rather than its actual use in social contexts. Part of this is of course because of fear of failure or embarrassment, and part of it is surely also from the lack of opportunities to speak the language in daily life. Thus, many people end up owning large stacks of paper with Cherokee words, but possessing little or no conversational ability. This is exacerbated, of course, by the fear of “saying it wrong,” despite the fact that Cherokee has not been standardized, and technically there is no “right” Cherokee other than what someone’s grandmother may have said. Everyone’s grandmother, of course, said it slightly differently.
(3) What was the nature of your doctoral research? Given that you’ve compared the situations for the Cherokee communities and that of German immigrants, can you say a little about how you think language suppression and revitalization intersect with race, ethnicity, and nationalism/nationality? How do you think that the social construction of whiteness in America benefits from the erasure of specific ethno-linguistic communities and identities? Does this argue for the relevance of creative engagement with heritage languages and cultures?
As you mention, my dissertation compared the way that language shift unfolded in two very different settings: the German-speaking communities of eastern Wisconsin, and the Cherokee-speaking communities of western North Carolina. What you see in both situations is a process called “verticalization” – an increasing interconnection between local community units and the society in which they are embedded. So where once in these communities you had local mom and pop grocery stores, farms, schools, and churches, these organizations became more intensely networked over time with organizations outside the community – local grocery stores yielded to chains, farms got bought out by factories, schools fell under the purview of county and/or state school boards, and churches joined organizations like synods or conferences.
All those new connections changed people’s social networks, which in turn affected their language behavior. This is very much bound up with urbanization, industrialization, and the extraction of resources – all ultimately part of the colonialist endeavor. So where you once have small localities providing the majority of their own supply chain and being pretty autonomous, the county, state, and nation gradually assert more power over the decision-making that goes on in these localities. For language, that tends to mean a general adjustment toward whatever the dominant language of the external society is – U.S. English in the case of the United States.
Perhaps counter-intuitively in a lot of ways, racial segregation in the United States has slowed or hindered this process. The federal government had a sort of paradoxical policy when it came to assimilating Native Americans, for example, simultaneously isolating people to reservations and boarding schools where they got very little interaction with the external society, and also insisting that indigenous people accommodate to that society. In essence, they were saying “we want you to be just like us, but we won’t let you near us to show you how it’s done.” So actually there all that they achieved was to traumatize people and, if we’re being optimistic about things, to galvanize and reify the groups they were isolating.
For white people in America, this issue becomes thorny in very subtle ways. As Theodore Allen has pointed out in The Invention of the White Race, whiteness really obscures and erases the history of the various European immigrants that came to this place and centers skin color over any particular cultural or social commonalities. People from the Scottish Highlands, as you well know, weren’t always best friends with Lowlanders, but under the system in America, they were considered the same because of the color of their skin. Likewise, many of the ancestors of people from the German-speaking regions of Wisconsin immigrated prior to German unification in 1871, which meant that they didn’t consider themselves “German” at all, but rather Swabian, Bavarian, Hessian, Franconian, and so forth.
Even so, under the view of whiteness, they were all the same. So that kind of thing really helped to suppress languages other than English, because when you obscure people’s cultural and historical (and even regional) backgrounds and have them all identify with an Anglo-centric perspective driven by skin color, that tends to even out the disparate social networks – especially if that grouping confers opportunities and power. We see that kind of power exerted in the way that Irish immigrants became white, managing to establish themselves in opposition to black people who migrated out of the south in the early 1900s. So by marginalizing black people, they achieved whiteness.
Of course now we see a crisis among people who have understood themselves to be white, a backlash against the assertion of marginalized people’s identities in which white people claim they have no culture, or that society does not see them as special in the same way it does people of color. This is, of course, because the white perspective is looked upon as the default; the baseline, the norm, and how can we look at something as special or unique when we also privilege it as the baseline? So white people who feel they lack identity will appropriate other cultural tokens, further damaging people of color, or they will respond to their insecurities by blaming people of color and adopting an overtly “white pride” stance – much of which we are seeing played out in the news today.
In a way the privileging of white skin and the subsequent erasure of the identities of people of European descent has been bad for everyone involved – everyone except the economic elites, who stand to profit from it. Remember that the reason for racially-based slavery was that southern plantation owners wanted to extract resources and capital from the land. Slavery based on race – chattel slavery – guaranteed an endless source of labor, while knowing that they would not be subject to enslavement kept poor white people willing to endorse the idea. Poor whites didn’t benefit from slavery nearly as much as the plantation owners, but they were willing to support it because it put them one rung above African Americans. Consequently, we get the erasure and homogenization of European immigrant groups, the continued marginalization of African Americans, and the suppression of non-English varieties – even including Spanish; a language which preceded English on this continent by several decades.
In essence, while people of color have been marginalized, many of European descent have been bamboozled. For those who can achieve it, a re-awakening of heritage languages and cultures would be an excellent option. For those who can’t, whether because of family histories or other motivations for not doing so, regional identity is also an extremely viable strategy – history didn’t stop for European immigrants as soon as they arrived here. American regional culture is defined by the combined histories and interactions of the immigrants, enslaved people and indigenous people who occupied those regions. The Midwest has a different feel to the deep South specifically because of the different histories and combinations of populations that lived there, and whiteness hides that as well.
(4) What role do you think University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill faculty and research efforts could play in community efforts of language revitalization? How could people working in language revitalization in and out of academia ideally support each other, regardless of the language in question, Native and/or immigrant? How do you think that Scottish Gaelic Studies might fit productively into this larger picture?
Well one of the things academics are good at is planning – okay maybe “scheming” is the better word. One of my pursuits personally has been in laying out what kinds of projects need to be launched in order to make Cherokee language revitalization more successful. Of course, we can’t do that without community buy-in, so it’s incredibly important for scholars to be willing to listen to community members and collaborate with them in order to meet both groups’ needs. The university has some great resources it can leverage toward language revitalization efforts – intellectual, financial, technological, and human. One of the ways the university can help is by engaging students and their enthusiasm. Energy is perhaps one of the most underestimated resources we can draw from.
The other point to consider is that every situation is going to be different. Each community has its own considerations and its own goals, so we have to be careful not to adopt a “one size fits all” mentality, and really listen to the needs, considerations, and expertise of community partners.
I think one thing Scottish Gaelic Studies could do would be to begin galvanizing more European-descended folks toward the cause of language revitalization, and the importance of culture, even for those who are considered white. It can also awaken people to the complications of whiteness and what it entails for people. We don’t have to continue upholding the pattern that wealthy English landowners established for their own benefit in the colonies – indigenous folks, Asian Americans, African Americans and the descendants of marginalized European populations can all work together to benefit one another.