TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation broke ground Wednesday at the site of the future Durbin Feeling Language Center, an historic project that will house all of the tribe’s language programs under one roof for the first time.

The new language center is named in honor of the late Durbin Feeling, Cherokee Nation’s single-largest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah.

“Our language and our culture are our link to the past; they are what binds us together today, and the key to remaining a distinct people tomorrow,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Our culture and by extension, our language, has been tested ever since European contact: war, disease, broken treaties, our forced removal, the suppression of our government, the influence of the so-called ‘civilized’ society around us has all put our culture and our language to the test. We are a strong people, but our lifeways and our language have all been eroded by all of these pressures over the centuries. Our language continues to be tested, but the test today is not war, is not removal, is not broken treaties, but instead the passage of time and the fragility of human life. The question today is whether we can meet this present test and save our language. If we lose our language, if we lose that precious possession which binds us together today, we will have lost something that none of our other accomplishments can make up for. This facility, named for our late friend Durbin Feeling, is the assurance we need that we will not fail this test.”

In 2019, the Council of the Cherokee Nation approved the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, legislation introduced by Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner to provide an additional $16 million investment into preserving the Cherokee language. It is the largest language investment in Cherokee Nation history.

It is estimated that there are only about 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers in the Cherokee Nation.

“This site which will soon house our Cherokee language programs will be such a blessing for our Cherokee speakers and the younger generations who will grow up in this space learning and using the Cherokee language each and every day,” said Deputy Chief Warner. “It will be an awesome experience to witness our Cherokee language grow through these efforts. Cherokee speakers like Mr. Durbin Feeling have laid such an incredible and immeasurable foundation for perpetuating the Cherokee language, and it is no small responsibility we now have to make sure it not only survives, but that it thrives for generations and generations to come.”

The Durbin Feeling Language Center will house the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, and the Cherokee Nation translation team, along with other programs and services offered through the tribe’s language efforts.

“We are in exciting and unprecedented times for Cherokee language revitalization,” said Howard Paden, executive director of the Cherokee Nation Language Department. “This groundbreaking ceremony marks a new era, a moment in time when we stand together and commit to preserving the very heart of our Cherokee Nation – the Cherokee language. There should be no question that the Cherokee language not only tells us about the history of the Cherokee people, but it tells us about where the Cherokee people will go in the future. We need the knowledge and the wisdom of our people that is embedded in our language, and for that reason and so many more, we are humbled to be involved in this great effort.”

Along with the new Durbin Feeling Language Center, the Cherokee Nation is also building five new efficiency style homes for Cherokee speakers, helping to connect them to younger Cherokee language learners at the nearby language center. The nearby speakers village is named in honor of the late Bonnie Kirk, a beloved Cherokee speaker and Cherokee Immersion School teacher who understood the importance of teaching younger generations to speak the Cherokee language and use it in their daily lives.

Childers Architect is responsible for architectural work on the project, and Foreman-Manhattan is overseeing construction of the language center. Construction is expected to be complete in 12 to 18 months.

Download additional photos