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On the phone from Kansas, Oklahoma, Cherokee Nation citizen Lawrence Panther speaks in his second language, English, explaining how he began teaching his first: Cherokee

“I about lost it, my speaking ability,” Panther told Native News Online. Up until third grade, Panther said he spoke Cherokee fluently with friends and family, and didn’t know English at all. But from the third grade through high school, he was immersed in English through the public school system and boarding school, and Cherokee was spoken less and less.

It wasn’t until he came back home at age 25 that he realized he wasn’t able to roll his tongue when he tried to speak Cherokee. “I had to relearn my language,” he said.

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Now, he’s one of only 3,000 fluent Cherokee speakers left after the language was nearly eradicated by Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation. A self-taught reader and writer, he’s sharing the language with as many people as he can.

Panther led a free Cherokee language class at the Museum of Native American History (MONAH) in Bentonville, Arkansas on Saturday. It was the second in the museum’s quarterly “Art of the Cherokee Language” series. In the first session remotely streamed while the museum was closed for the pandemic last year, Panther went over Cherokee beginners grammar and vocabulary. His lesson over the weekend focused on conjugations, according to the museum’s director Charlotte Buchanan-Gale.

“It was a lovely mix of people,”  Buchanan-Gale, who attended the event Saturday, told Native News Online. “There were some people that had Indigeous heritage, some did not. Some were Cherokee. It wasn’t just elders, there were young people, too,” she said.

Panther is encouraging anyone and everyone interested to join in. The date for the next event hasn’t been set yet, but will likely be early 2022.

“I think it’s very important that we still carry on our language and inform the younger ones who they are, who we are,” Panther said. “The language is very time consuming and a lot of people get discouraged trying to learn it. I encourage anybody, everybody to learn.”

In addition to language courses, MONAH is also hosting a storytelling event from Amy Bluem, member of the Chickasaw Nation, later this month, and a beginner flute workshop with Cherokee Nation flutist Gabby Nagel. 

Learn more about MONAH’s events.

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication's lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.