As tribes fight to save their languages from extinction, has the government done enough?
Rebecca Nagle PERSPECTIVE
Nov. 5, 2019
Ricky Duvall’s first language was Cherokee. His mom spoke Cherokee; his grandparents spoke Cherokee; his siblings and cousins all spoke Cherokee. When he was growing up in Lyons Switch, Oklahoma, everyone around him spoke Cherokee.
But when Duvall went to kindergarten in the mid-1970s, everyone spoke English. As one of the few Cherokee-speaking kids in his class, he was told by his teachers to stop. At the time, he says, they believed Cherokee bilingual students weren’t as smart and would fall behind students who spoke only English — a theory that research has since proven unfounded. When Duvall spoke his own language, his teacher kept him inside for recess. He remembers being 6 years old, watching the other kids play through the window.
So Duvall worked hard to be a good student and speak English, and only English. First at school, then at home, and eventually everywhere. And like thousands of other Cherokee-first language speakers of his generation, he lost his language.
“Speakers under the age of 40 are few and far between,” Duvall says today. “It was everywhere when I was a kid. … We’re losing it.”