TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Master/Apprentice Program graduated seven students recently during a special commencement ceremony at the Chota Center in Tahlequah.

Rachel Bearpaw Pritchett, Kayli Gonzales, Kourtney Vann, and John Paul Wofford of Tahlequah; Wahnema Holcomb, of Nicut; Karis Poafpybitty, of Broken Arrow; and Stephanie Sapp, of Kansas, each received a plaque of completion during the ceremony.

“I am proud that within the Cherokee Nation, our language department has really rallied around the fact that this language will not fail, it cannot fail and it must not fail,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “We have put historic sums into saving the language but it takes more than money to save it. It is accomplished through the young Cherokee children enrolled in the Cherokee language immersion schools, through our translation department and our Cherokee elders, and it is accomplished through the adults who take up the calling and enroll in the Cherokee Language Master/Apprentice Program so that they might one day teach others our beautiful language. Our language, whether we speak it or not, unites every single one of us. We have recognized that saving the language is about creating a new generation of speakers. All of these things we do go to perpetuate the language.”

The Cherokee Nation established the Cherokee Language Master/Apprentice Program in 2014 to teach adults to be proficient conversational Cherokee speakers and teachers. Participants receive an hourly educational stipend and typically spend 40 hours per week for two years immersed in the Cherokee language with master-level fluent Cherokee speakers.

“This graduation ceremony is about celebrating our graduates and the Cherokee language. When we hear our language, we know that is what makes our tribe so special. Our language is what will lead us into the future and that is what holds us together every day,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said.

Master speakers Doris Shell, Cora Flute, Gary Vann and Jerry Ross teach participants the Cherokee language in a classroom setting. In addition to classroom learning, students are encouraged to visit Cherokee-fluent elders in order to learn and practice speaking the language. The students also visit community organizations and schools to showcase and teach the language.

“It’s a great journey,” said Wofford. “Being a CLMAP graduate means bringing the language back to my family. My grandparents knew the language but did not pass it down out of fear. By learning the language I am reintroducing it back into my lineage.”

Wofford said his plans are to continue learning the language, but also pass it on to at-large communities.

“Now that the Nation has begun reclaiming our language here at home, I think it is important to spread it out to our at-large citizens so that they can also have the opportunity to learn and become fluent speakers,” he said.

The program has now graduated 32 conversational, second-language Cherokee speakers since its first graduating class in 2016.

“What is so notable about these graduates is not only did they graduate but now there are families that are speaking Cherokee again,” said Howard Paden, Executive Director for the Language Department. “What we’re celebrating with this graduation is the fact that after 40 years, the Cherokee language is back.”

In November 2022, the tribe celebrated the opening of the new, historic $20 million Durbin Feeling Language Center, which houses all of the Cherokee Nation’s growing Cherokee language programs under one roof in an effort to preserve and perpetuate the language. It was funded through the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, legislation introduced by Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner to provide millions of dollars for preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language. When approved by the Council of the Cherokee Nation, it became the largest language investment in the tribe’s history.

For more information including program qualifications, visit https://language.cherokee.org/language-programs/cherokee-language-master-apprentice-program/ or call the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program office at 918-207-4995.