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Session 4: Language

There’s a picture in the words.
—James “Bo” Taylor, on the Cherokee language

Indigenous Languages of North Carolina

Beth Crist

When English explorer John Lawson visited North Carolina in 1700, he expressed surprise at the number of indigenous languages he encountered. “The Difference of Languages, that is found amongst these Heathens, seems altogether strange,” he wrote in A New Voyage to Carolina. “For it often appears, that every dozen Miles, you meet with an Indian Town [with a language] quite different from the others you last parted withal.” Other early explorers and colonists in the southeast noted a large number of indigenous languages, but only a few, including Lawson, recorded them. By the late 1700s, when scholarly interest in southeastern indigenous languages began to develop, Indian tribes had lost many members to disease, warfare, and consolidation with other tribes. In less than one hundred years, many languages had also been lost; government suppression of Indian languages in the 1800s and early 1900s further hastened their extinction.

We will never know how many indigenous languages existed at the time of first contact. Linguists and anthropologists have recorded extant indigenous languages throughout the country and have grouped them into language families—groups of related languages having common ancestors. Indigenous languages in North Carolina fall within three language families: Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan.

Linguists believe that Algonquian was the most widely distributed language family in North America. Indian tribes from Labrador, Canada, to North Carolina and from the northern United States and Canada westward into the plains spoke Algonquian languages. Except for those found in the western United States and Canada, Algonquian languages possess similar grammatical and semantic features. North Carolina’s Algonquian-speaking population—the Chowan, Hatteras, Moratok, Pamlico, Secotan, and Weapemeoc Indians—lived primarily along the coast north of the Cape Fear River during the Contact period; the languages of those tribes are all extinct. The 1990 U.S. Census reported that 12,887 people in the country spoke Algonquian languages. The English language has adopted numerous Algonquian words, including caribou, chipmunk, hickory, moccasin, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, skunk, squash, toboggan, and totem.

During the Contact period, Iroquian-speaking tribes occupied at least three regions: along the St. Lawrence River and north shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario in Canada; along the lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland; and along the coast and in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. North Carolina tribes spoke Cherokee, Tuscarora, and Nottaway-Meherrin, among other Iroquoian languages; the Cherokee and Tuscarora languages survive today.

Tribes widely distributed along the Mississippi River, the upper Missouri River region, the northern and central plains, Virginia, and the Carolinas spoke Siouan languages. In North Carolina, the Cape Fear, Catawba, Eno, Keyauwee, Occaneechi, Tutelo, Saponi, Shakori, Sissipahaw, Waccamaw, and Wateree Indians in the Cape Fear region and the Piedmont spoke Siouan languages that lay dormant for a period but are now being revived.

Languages within a language family often differed so much that even tribes living close together could not fully communicate. The Tuscarora and Cherokee, for instance, both spoke Iroquoian languages but could not converse with each other. Moreover, a tribe often had several dialects. For example, at least three dialects existed within the Cherokee tribe. Tribal interpreters may have translated unfamiliar Indian languages for their people. Most southern tribes also spoke Mobilian, a common language that combined Choctaw, Alabama, and other indigenous languages with a simplified grammar. White traders used Mobilian in their dealings with Indian tribes.

Today, interest in indigenous language is growing. Children and adults are learning these languages through live instruction, tapes, CD-ROMs, and online courses. Dictionaries and grammar books aid this exciting renewal movement. Linguists are studying and recording languages at risk of extinction. And Indian tribes in North Carolina, by initiating and promoting language preservation programs, are safeguarding an important part of their heritage.

Occaneechi Language Resource Development Program

Beth Crist

Occaneechi History

When the first European settlers entered the inland areas of Virginia and North Carolina in the mid-1600s, they found the land inhabited by a number of small, semiautonomous tribes that spoke variants of the Siouan language family. The Occaneechi coexisted with several related Indian communities, including the Tutelo, Saponi, Stuckenock (the Eno and Shakori), and Meipontsky (Cheraw), in an area ranging from the Roanoke valley in Virginia to the northern Piedmont of North Carolina. These peoples, who spoke mutually intelligible dialects and shared a common heritage, referred to themselves collectively as Yésah.

As the colonial frontier pushed into the Piedmont and Indian and European interaction intensified, the Occaneechi tribe gained prominence among the Siouan groups. The Occaneechi controlled much of the deer skin trade, and their language became the lingua franca of the Piedmont. Occaneechi was used as a trade language, for diplomacy, and in religious rituals of this region. In the mid-1710s the Occaneechi and other small tribes merged with the Saponi after signing a treaty with the Virginia colonial government. As a result, the distinction between the Occaneechi and Saponi languages became blurred.

The Virginia Colonial Records show that on May 27, 1730, Charles Kimball petitioned the House of Burgesses that “his allowance Interpreter to the Saponi and Occaneechi Indians may be levied.” This indicates that a number of Indians— enough to warrant an interpreter—spoke only the languages of their respective tribes. The Saponi may have spoken their language until after the Civil War. Alamance County resident G. C. Whitmore remembered his grandfather, Andrew Whitmore, speaking a language that was not English. He recalled that his father understood his grandfather and would translate for him. It is unlikely that Andrew Whitmore could carry on a conversation in an Indian language (if it were an Indian language), but he may have known words and phrases. G. C. Whitmore, who died in 1994, could not remember any of the words of the language his grandfather spoke.

It is not known when the Occaneechi and Saponi languages died out completely; very little is known about them. Junkatapurse, the Indian town at Fort Christanna in what is now Brunswick County, Virginia, means “horse’s head” in Saponi, probably in reference to a nearby bend in the river. This is one of only a few dozen Saponi words that were recorded. Further fieldwork may reveal individuals who remember bits and pieces of the old languages, but the situation does not look promising.

A Language’s Revival

Through the efforts of former tribal chairman Lawrence Dunmore III, the OBSN used a federal grant to document a language closely related to the one the Occaneechi once spoke, and to learn to speak it again. A primary objective of the tribe is to present programs that enhance cultural heritage and knowledge and that promote positive identity among the Occaneechi-Saponi people. The tribal council feels that one key method of achieving this objective is to preserve and protect the ancestral language for current and future generations.

Because so little is known about the Occaneechi language, the OBSN is studying the language of the Tutelo tribe, who lived with the Occaneechi and spoke a similar dialect that was better recorded. Even with this concession, the OBSN faces a difficult process. Because there are no recognized speakers of the language, known today as Tutelo-Saponi, or Yésah, researchers have only century-old transcriptions from which to reconstruct the language.

The tribe is up for the challenge, however. With the award of a Language Planning Grant from the Administration for Native Americans, Department of Health and Human Services, the OBSN developed a comprehensive Language Resource Development Plan (LRDP). This project adopted the following governing principles:

  • A viable approach to understanding the Occaneechi-Saponi people’s ancestry and cultural identity cannot be maintained as long as culture and language remain separated.
  • The organization and transmission of tribal history must acknowledge and emphatically document the role of the Yésah language. 
  • The Occaneechi-Saponi must be willing to be creative and innovative in generating the contexts in which the Yésah language can be used, and, ultimately, preferred. 
  • All research into the Yésah language is sacred; it is, in the end, a conversation with the tribe’s ancestors. 
  • The most effective learning environment is the home. The LRDP must not stray from this truth. Therefore, the LRDP must be dynamic enough to accommodate each home, while at the same time embracing a community-wide curriculum. 
  • The OBSN must maintain creative control over the language project. Only through the talents and commitment of the elected tribal council members is the OBSN able to be responsive to the needs and interests of all tribal members. 
  • The LRDP must be learner centered. There is much evidence that teacher-centered and traditional classroom learning models are ineffective. The LRDP will explore active rather than passive models of language learning. 
  • All curricula material must be developed by and within the community that it serves. 
  • The respect, appreciation, and participation of tribal elders will be built into the LRDP.

Researchers have collected all available information on the language. Linguists and members of the OBSN are now studying the language to see if it can be revived into a spoken dialect. If the Occaneechi can speak their ancestral language and pass it on to future generations, it can become a living language again, growing and changing with new words and inflections. The Occaneechi plan to work with other related Siouan communities in North Carolina, Virginia, and Canada to ensure the rebirth and survival of the Tutelo-Saponi language for all Yésah descendants.

“We want to be able to speak the old language so that the next generation will know that there is a separate language and so we’ll be able to teach it to them,” said John Blackfeather Jeffries, former Occaneechi tribal chairman.

Click here to see two Tutelo-Saponi language lessons prepared by Lawrence A. Dunmore, III, Esquire, OBSN tribal language program liaison.

Profile of the Past: Sequoyah

Beth Crist

In 1821 Sequoyah invented a set of written characters, or syllabary, for the Cherokee language. No other person has created such a writing system. Sequoyah’s lack of schooling makes his accomplishment especially remarkable.

Sequoyah was born in the Indian town of Taskigi, Tennessee, (then western North Carolina) in about 1770. His father was Nathaniel Gist (Guest or Guess), a white trader who abandoned Sequoyah’s mother, a woman of Cherokee and European heritage, before the birth of their child. Sequoyah had a traditional Cherokee childhood, learning to hunt and trap animals rather than going to school. As an adult he became a skilled silver craftsman and also engaged in hunting and fur trading until a hunting accident disabled him. Increased contact with whites led Sequoyah to ponder their written language, which Indians called “talking leaves,” and he resolved to devise a similar system to benefit the Cherokee. According to legend, a customer suggested that Sequoyah sign his silver jewelry. Sequoyah asked Charles Hicks, a wealthy farmer, to write his name for him. Hicks wrote both Sequoyah and George Gist, Sequoyah’s English name, and Sequoyah copied the letters onto his jewelry. The year was 1809, the same year Sequoyah began creating the Cherokee alphabet, which became a twelve-year obsession. A stint with the United States Army in the War of 1812 and the Creek War further convinced him that the Cherokee needed a written language, for Indians could not correspond by letter with their families at home or read military communications. 

At first, Sequoyah created pictographs—one symbol for each word—which he carved into or drew onto pieces of bark. But he found this system too cumbersome and threw away his work. Beginning anew, he observed that all Cherokee words were formed from combinations of about one hundred distinct syllables. He then formulated a symbol for most of these syllables, using English letters he found in the Bible and McGuffey’s Reader and Greek letters, without knowing their sounds. He created other symbols, arriving at a total of eighty-five. One symbol represents the sound of an English s and six others represent vowel sounds; the remaining seventy-eight symbols denote combinations of consonant and vowel sounds.

The long, painstaking process of creating a written language was fraught with personal difficulties. Sequoyah aroused the suspicion of his family and neighbors as he talked to himself, paid little attention to his family, and wrote on bark. They feared that he would lose respect in his community and that he was practicing witchcraft. The town chief even tried Sequoyah and his loyal daughter Ayoka for sorcery. Because of his obsession, his wife left him, neighbors taunted him, and someone—perhaps his wife—burned his cabin and work. Undaunted, he began again.

By 1821 Sequoyah believed he had perfected his syllabary. He taught Ayoka to read and write using it. Neighbors visited his house for demonstrations. Sequoyah unveiled his syllabary in a tribal council meeting and in 1822 traveled to Arkansas to deliver it to the Cherokee Nation. The following year he moved to Arkansas, where he mined and sold salt.

Sequoyah's syllabary

Sequoyah’s syllabary was easy to learn, and thousands of Cherokee learned to read and write within months of its introduction. The Cherokee began writing letters, recording sacred songs and curing formulas, and keeping council records. Missionaries translated the Bible into Cherokee. Impressed with the syllabary’s positive impact, the Cherokee National Council struck a silver medal in Sequoyah’s honor. Inscribed in both English and Cherokee, it read, “Presented to George Gist by the General Council of the Cherokee Nation for his ingenuity in the invention of the Cherokee Alphabet: 1825.” In February 1828 the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in an American Indian language, was founded. The printing press and syllabary characters traveled by boat from Boston and by wagon to the newspaper’s office in New Echota, Georgia, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. The newspaper operated until 1834.

In 1828 Sequoyah visited Washington, D.C., as an envoy to negotiate terms for the Cherokee removal from Arkansas to Oklahoma. The following year he moved to Oklahoma with 2,500 other Cherokee, returning to silversmithing but also spending much time teaching his syllabary to the Cherokee (and an adapted version to the Choctaw). He remained politically active, serving as president of the Cherokee constitutional convention that formally united the eastern and western Cherokee in 1839. In 1842 or 1843, Sequoyah set out with his son and several friends in search of a band of Cherokee said to be in an area of Mexico, now part of Texas. He wished to persuade them to rejoin the main tribal body but, too frail to survive the difficult journey, Sequoyah died in Mexico in August 1843 before finding the band.

A California redwood tree named for him and a statue in Washington, D.C., pay tribute to Sequoyah’s genius and perseverance. More important, his legacy lives in the syllabary still used to teach and preserve the Cherokee language.

Profile of the Present: James "Bo" Taylor

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian would like to welcome you to learn the Cherokee language. We are presently teaching this course via e-mail. The course will be somewhat informal, consisting of regular postings of words, phrases, and general information to help you become a speaker of the Cherokee language. There is no charge for this service. All that we ask is that you try to speak the language and encourage others to participate.

So begins the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s first electronic Cherokee language lesson, initiated in April 2000 in response to requests for information about the language. James “Bo” Taylor, an archivist at the museum and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, teaches the lessons to promote Cherokee culture.

Taylor, who holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in Cherokee studies from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, does not consider himself fluent in Cherokee yet. He studies with Walker Calhoun— whom Taylor calls his mentor and “main informant”—a leader from the Big Cove community. (Calhoun also teaches Taylor Cherokee music and dance.) Taylor feels that his continuing study of the language helps him teach others.

Taylor stresses everyday conversation in his lessons, often choosing a common word or phrase and building a lesson around it. A recent lesson introduced the Cherokee word for television, a-n-da-yv-la-ta-s-g, which means “images appearing.” He expanded the lesson by offering translations of “turn on the television” and “turn off the television.” Since February 2001, Taylor has included audio clips in his lessons, enabling students to hear pronunciations of Cherokee words.

Taylor’s lessons, which are in the Giduwah, or middle-Cherokee, dialect, initially attracted two hundred students; today, eleven hundred students are enrolled. Although most students are Cherokee, people from around the country (including Alaska) and across the world (including Japan and New Zealand) take his lessons. All benefit from Taylor’s enthusiasm for the Cherokee language and culture. “There’s a picture in the words,” he says, adding that Cherokee is “a vivid language and, when used correctly, you will be able to see the world in a whole new light.”

Related Links

Cherokee Phoenix
The Georgia Historic Newspapers project offers scans of the earliest issues of the Cherokee Phoenix. Search for “Cherokee Phoenix.

Cherokee Phoenix
The Cherokee Phoenix is still produced, though no longer in the Cherokee language. The website includes online issues.

How Many Indigenous American Languages Are Spoken in the United States?
James Estes from the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education created this list of indigenous languages spoken in the United States.

Stabilizing Indigenous Languages
This online monograph contains numerous articles discussing the state of indigenous languages.

Teaching Indigenous Languages
This site is an outgrowth of a series of annual conferences started in 1994 focusing on the linguistic, educational, social, and political issues related to the survival of endangered indigenous languages of the world.

Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota, & Cherokee
EDSITEment, a website by the National Endowment for the Humanities, offers this lesson plan for grades K-2.

Assignment 4

Complete one of the following options:

Option 1 (Choose this option if you are seeking technology credits for this course.)
Find several websites that offer American Indian language lessons or dictionaries (the websites and provide lists of possible sites). Translate a few phrases or sentences of your choice into two American Indian languages using those sites. How can you use these translations and the websites from which they came to teach Indian history and culture, or to teach about language in general? Share the websites you found and your ideas on teaching in an outline or narrative form.

Option 2 (Choose this option if you are seeking reading credits for this course.)
Sequoyah toiled for years to create a written language for his people, and at great personal cost. Thousands of Cherokee soon learned to read it. Why is having a written language--and knowing how to read it--so important? Create a lesson plan in which your students explore that question. Use Sequoyah's convictions and achievement as an example.

Option 3
Language is a vital part of culture.
Create a lesson plan in which your students examine the above statement. Have them address the following questions:

  • Is the statement true? Why or why not?
  • What happens to a culture if its language becomes extinct? 
  • Why are American Indians in North Carolina and indigenous people around the world trying to preserve or revive their languages?

Submit your completed assignment via e-mail to:

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