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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Students embrace Cherokee language
by Josh Newton Staff Writer Tahlequah Daily Press
credits: photos by Josh Newton

Well into his third year of teaching, Brad Wagnon encourages his students at Tahlequah High School to embrace a language and culture that is foundational to the Cherokee Nation.

Students enrolled in the Cherokee language class at Tahlequah High School are getting a taste of a unique culture.

Wagnon is teaching Cherokee language, a class he believes is truly unique for any school.

“Tahlequah is one of the only high schools that has Cherokee during the school day,” said Wagnon.

Students spend an entire trimester learning basic words and sentences, like svhi (“it was”); walosi (“frog”); svnoi (“night”); tsunadeloquasdi (“school”); or aya agiyosi (“I’m hungry.”)

Taking a guess, Wagnon says students in his class probably learn about 100 basic words per trimester.

“We learn some sentences, so it’s really hard to know exactly how many they learn,” said Wagnon.

With the school based in the Cherokee capital of the world, it’s no surprise that most students taking Cherokee language are members of the Cherokee Nation – but not all, said Wagnon.

“Some are from other tribes, and some aren’t part of any,” he said. “Some are just interested in the language and culture.”

Not only do students learn to form basic sentences, but Wagnon’s classes also get physically involved in the Cherokee culture through playing stickball, Cherokee marbles, or shooting blowguns.

“For Cherokee students, I tell them their language is what makes the Cherokee people unique from every other tribe,” said Wagnon. “For non-Indians, the class is just something to get more exposure to language.”

He said the most challenging concept to students is the Cherokee syllabary, a script of 85 characters invented by George Guess, commonly known as Sequoyah.

“Students are used to seeing the English alphabet. Cherokee is a lot different than learning Spanish,” said Wagnon. “With Spanish and English, [those languages] come from the same root. When compared to English, Cherokee is about as different as English is to the Chinese language.”

Wagnon and approximately 50 students this trimester generally spend about three days of the week practicing the Cherokee syllabary with flashcards.

Wagnon credits students’ recent success at the Cherokee Language Bowl with their drive to learn the historic script.

“That was the thing, I think, that helped us win first place at the competition,” said Wagnon. “We’d never won first before. The competition had a whole round devoted to the Cherokee syllabary.”

THS students Jessie Hooper, Billy Acuff, Julie Reese, Sky Blakley and Joey Case participated and took home the top prize in the competition built around a format similar to academic buzzer competitions.

Wagnon said some questions forced students to translate from Cherokee to English, while others required translation from English to Cherokee.

American Indian students at the high school can also participate in Native Reflections Club, while middle-school students have the Heritage Club.

Wagnon also sponsors a Cherokee Club and Heritage Club. Students from the Cherokee Club recently competed in a stickball exhibition against students from Jay and Vinita high schools.

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