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'We're trying to save who we are': The Kituwah language is endangered, but my sister and our elders keep it alive

caption: A page from Rachel's book "Denali nole Tsataga (Tom and the Chickens)."
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A page from Rachel's book "Denali nole Tsataga (Tom and the Chickens)."

Rachel Lam is the older sister of RadioActive youth reporter Jared Lam. She has spent the last few years learning an Indigenous language commonly known as Cherokee, and now, she's authoring a children's book to help younger generations learn the language.

Rachel's book comes as several Indigenous languages are going endangered: In 2019, there were only about 2,000 Kituwah speakers left, with the vast majority of them being over the age of 70. Only five speakers are in their 30s and 40s. The number is constantly dwindling, with roughly eight speakers dying every month.

Rachel has studied for the past three years under the instruction of a few people, including Tom Belt. Belt is an elder who has taught at Western Carolina, Stanford, and Duke Universities. He's also an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen, but lives with his wife in the Eastern Band.

There are three federally recognized tribes of Cherokee people: The Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.

RadioActive’s Jared Lam talks to Rachel Lam and Tom Belt about the importance of saving languages.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This episode was entirely youth-produced, from the interviewing and writing to the audio editing.]

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


[RACHEL LAM speaks in Gawonihisdi]

JARED LAM: That was my sister, Rachel Lam. We are both Chinese Malaysian, white, and Cherokee Nation enrolled Andiguwagi. She's 24 years old and has been learning Gawonihisdi for the past three years under the instruction of a few people, including Tom Belt. But what do those words mean: "Gawonihisdi," "Cherokee," "Anidiguwagi?" What are their histories? Let's ask Tom.

TOM BELT: Gawonihisdi is just — we just define it as talking. We don't have terms like language or anything like that. Cherokee, of course, it was picked up originally by the Spanish. So in actuality, the word “Cherokee” means nothing in our language. It's not even a word in our language. And they heard it from another tribe, but the actual name that we go by, Anidiguwagi, which means "the people of Kituwah."

JARED LAM: The fundamental misunderstanding of the Anidiguwagi culture and plummeting rates of native speakers say everything you need to know about the direction that this culture is heading in. It’s very endangered, and it's what inspired my sister Rachel to want to help. She has always loved storytelling and art. So, she decided to write a children's book in Gawonihisdi.

RACHEL LAM: There's a real lack of materials, which is a barrier to learning the language, because you can't really learn the language if you don't have stuff to practice with. I was working for a language camp in Snowbird, North Carolina. And then when I was coming home, I was trying to come up with a way that I could still help out even though I'm in Seattle. And I decided that I would try and make materials for the camp to use, as well as any other groups in North Carolina or Oklahoma that find use for them.

JARED LAM: When Rachel asked Tom for a story idea, he told her a story from his childhood. He was chasing chickens at his friend's house, and fell off a chicken coop. He broke his arm. Later, Tom's father shares an important Anidiguwagi teaching and philosophy with him.

TOM BELT: He used the admonition when I did something wrong, "A real human being doesn't do that." And so the next thing I wanted to do was to try and figure out well, okay, what do human beings do? What do you mean by that? And he would explain to me the ways in which a real human being does things included all those kinds of things that we talk about in everyday life: clear thinking, knowing that for every action, there is reaction. You have to be able to judge that; you have to be able to cognitively understand whatever you do has repercussions. And you have to think about which kind of repercussions you want. So it was a way of beginning to train or begin to teach somebody about personal responsibility.

JARED LAM: This teaching from Tom's father is at the center of my sister's children's book, partly because it's central to the plot, but also because Anidiguwagi key teachings can't be separated from the language itself. All the knowledge of Anidiguwagi people is embedded in our language.

TOM BELT: It's not like we're trying to save an artifact or relic. We're trying to save who we are. And along the way, we may be saving the rest of humanity too — that’s how important languages are. Every language is extremely important because it carries with it the total accumulated experience of humankind over 20,000 years. And if we segment that, if we negate part of it, we're negating a part of our own, our own world. And the loss of language is the loss of that kind of information.

JARED LAM: Gawonihisdi is an endangered language with mostly just elders left speaking it. The language could be completely gone in the coming years. So we must ask ourselves, what is the human thing to do? What are the repercussions that we want? Do we just sit back and let it die? Or do we maintain another rich perspective of humankind? We have to think about the repercussions that we live in right now and how we got here, because of the actions from our pasts and our actions today will cause repercussions for future generations.

From RadioActive, this is Jared Lam.

This RadioActive Youth Media podcast was produced in an advanced producers program for high school and college students. Find RadioActive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and on the RadioActive podcast.

Support for KUOW's RadioActive comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.

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