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John Standingdeer’s goal is saving the Cherokee language

John Standingdeer has patented his technique for teaching the Cherokee language.
John Standingdeer has patented his technique for teaching the Cherokee language. Courtesy of Your Grandmother’s Cherokee

John “Bullet” Standingdeer grew up hunting, fishing and swimming in the same mountains his Cherokee ancestors had occupied for thousands of years. He later started performing his tribe’s native dances and has devoted countless hours to understanding its history.

Yet despite his efforts, he found one key part of his heritage difficult to access – the notoriously difficult Cherokee language.

“Everything about me I knew to be Cherokee except for my tongue,” says Standingdeer, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in Western North Carolina.

So Standingdeer developed his own way of understanding the language and started using it to teach others. In October, he earned a patent for his technique, which he hopes will help preserve a language in danger of disappearing.

Of the more than 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the United States, only about 200 speak Cherokee, and most of them are over the age of 50.

“It’s so important to maintain our language because we’ve already lost so much of our culture,” he says. “But it’s like a river flowing away.”

For the students who have learned from this new method, Standingdeer has provided a crucial link to their tribe’s culture that has otherwise been missing.

“It wasn’t till I got older that I realized how important speaking the Cherokee language is to our identity,” says Tonya Carroll, a tribe member who has learned Cherokee using his method. “You can find the Cherokee language in our prayers, in our songs for social and ceremonial dances. It’s just our own unique way of viewing the world.”

‘I’m an Indian’

Standingdeer grew up in Cherokee, a tribal community that spans Swain and Jackson counties. He says his bloodline is almost entirely Cherokee, save for one relative who married a member of another Native American tribe she met at an Indian school.

Yet, he never heard Cherokee at home and learned only English in school. He says his grandparents and uncles knew how to speak it, but it wasn’t passed down. In those days, elders thought it more important that younger generations learn English well so that they would be ready for college and jobs.

“My classmates would ask me why I don’t speak Cherokee, and I’d tell them no one speaks it,” he says.

Standingdeer says he never noted how distinct his culture was from his classmates until he was in third grade.

“I remember looking at my name, and it was so long it went off the side of the paper, and I went home and told my mom, ‘I’m an Indian,’ ” he says. “And she said, ‘Yes.’ 

From then on, he made an effort to embrace his heritage, learning the traditional dances and playing stickball, a common Cherokee game, with his brothers.

He has continued showcasing Cherokee culture to audiences across the state and beyond as one of the tribe’s cultural ambassadors, participating in dances in traditional dress and other demonstrations.

About 10 years ago, he got involved with a group focused on language, and he enrolled in an immersion class. He couldn’t grasp it, even when he tried to get extra help.

He was slated to speak Cherokee in a documentary about the tribe and ended up having to read from cue cards.

“I hated it,” he says. “It was just a bunch of sounds, and I could only pronounce them how they were written.”

Frustration to breakthrough

Standingdeer’s struggle to learn Cherokee is not unique. The language, which some say has been spoken for thousands of years, was first written in the 1800s. But it fell into disuse when tribal members were forced to learn English in special schools. Eventually, much of the tribe was relocated to Oklahoma, and their overall numbers shrank.

As tribe members intermarried and became part of the larger culture, there was little need to speak Cherokee. Like many so-called heritage languages, its use dramatically dropped.

By the 1990s, the tribe started to fear for its language and beefed up its efforts to teach it. Most recently, it opened an immersion school where students spend the entire school day learning in Cherokee. But Standingdeer suspects the gap created when Cherokee was not regularly taught has made it harder than ever to learn, in part because those who speak it now learned it orally, not in written form.

On the other hand, it’s not spoken widely enough to be learned by ear.

As he tried time and again to learn, his frustration grew.

“This language has been spoken so long by so many people, it can’t be as hard as people say,” he says.

He had found a totally new way to make sense of the language.

Barbara Duncan, author and folklorist

One day, he was staring at the list of 85 symbols, known as a syllabary, that represent all of the syllables used to make Cherokee words. They were broken into two columns, and it occurred to him that sounds from each column could be combined to create a smaller number of 26 sounds.

The use of these sounds seemed to all follow a definite pattern, unlike the larger list, which had to be memorized verbatim.

Standingdeer enlisted the help of Barbara Duncan, an author and folklorist with deep knowledge of the Cherokee culture, who helped him pick out patterns. Over nine years, they reviewed the language, word after word, all in their spare time.

“He had found a totally new way to make sense of the language,” Duncan says. “It just opened a lot of people’s eyes to a new way of learning what had been so difficult to them.”

Duncan’s sister later adapted it to a computer program. The website they created, yourgrandmotherscherokee.com, now has a dictionary with more than 70,000 entries. Another feature allows users to express verbs in different persons and tenses.

The tribe’s “speakers” were skeptical of the new system, and many still are. But Standingdeer insists his method is particularly useful for people who are learning the language later in life – and is not meant to replace the oral language, from which it differs in some ways.

Standingdeer devotes most of his evenings to this work, and says he spends much of his days thinking through the origins and structure of Cherokee words. In the end, he says, he hopes his efforts play some role in the future of his tribe.

“Native people are doing whatever they can to preserve and hold onto their culture,” he says. “If our little ones choose to learn, I want them to have a way.”

If you know someone who should be a Tar Heel of the Week, emails us tarheel@newsobserver.com

John C. “Bullet” Standingdeer Jr.

Born: November 1956, Jackson County

Residence: Cherokee

Career: Founder, yourgrandmotherscherokee.com

Family: One son, one daughter

Notable: While the Navajo are best known for their role as “code talkers” during World War II, Cherokee was one of a number of Native American languages used during World War I to disguise messages regarding troop movements and other sensitive information. The Native Americans who served in this capacity were honored by Congress in 2002.

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