Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Free People, and How Not To Be a Wannabee, Part 1

This does NOT mean “people who talk funny,” it means “The free people.” This flag – which is NOT a flag of any Cherokee community - ties in with a vision and oral tradition shared with me in 1998 by medicine elders in Peru. It also ties in with current DNA research, and with written records kept by Keetoowahs in Oklahoma. I’ll bring more of it out over the next weeks.

As some of you know, I’ve face health challenges including surgeries and hospitalization this year. This has delayed me from getting more content up on the Speak Cherokee web site, but be assured that’s my top priority. If you’re a student and have sent me a question that I haven’t answered, please send it again.

Some time ago I asked the members of this mailing list WHY you want to learn the language. Many answers amounted to “Because I AM Cherokee,” or “Because it’s part of my ancestry and heritage.” That’s fine, but is that really a reason that will make you go back to the course material over and over again when you’re frustrated at your lack of progress? Less than 10% of the people who sign up for the free list ever go on to subscribe to the classes. Of those, only a minority ever complete the tests. I’d love to bring out improvements such as a Cherokee-language-only chat room, but I can’t afford do it for a handful of people.

How Not To Be A Wannabee, Lesson 1:

I knew someone who grew up in Kenya, which was then a colony in British East Africa. When speaking English he called it “KEEN-ya,” as the British called the colony, but while speaking Kikuyu he pronounced it “KENN-ya.” He did it so automatically, he wasn’t even aware that he was making the distinction until it was brought to his attention. That’s simply the way each community and each language in Kenya handled it. (NOTE: since independence, the official pronunciation is KENN-ya in every language, so some of you younger people may have never heard it pronounced KEEN-ya)

Cherokee speakers use the word “Tsalagi” or “Jalagi” only when speaking that language. When speaking English they say “Cherokee”. If somebody asks what nation you’re from and you answer Tsalagi rather than Cherokee, expect to be placed in the wannabee column. You’re showing off that you know the word, but you’re not using it as a native speaker would.

More to come!
Brian Wilkes

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New Moon, Flower Day --- Dandelions!

Osiyo, nigada!

Thursday was the new moon, a day that some still mark with fasting and reflection. Friday is a Flower Day, the final day of the 20-day cycle, which symbolically contains the seeds of the next 20 days. Have you given any thought to how your life will change over the 20 days? For example, will you make a serious commitment to learn the Cherokee language?

Kawoni (April) is the month of fertility, and the humble dandelion, the herald of spring, has already come and gone in some areas. If dandelions in your area have already gone to seed and floated away, you need to pick the greens before they become bitter, and dry the roots. It’s one of the most nutrient dense foods in the world, and almost zero-calorie.

Dandelion was welcomed by many of the First Nations as the first healer of spring, quickly replacing the nutrients that had been missing over a winter with little fresh produce. I had heard story this years ago from Mohegan and Delawares, so I researched the Cherokee word. Can’t find one! A little more research told me why: dandelions are not native to North America, they were introduced by settlers as a food source! The wind has spread them across the land, where they are available to any with the work ethic to pick or dig them. Astonishing that we live in a nation with so much surplus food, some people actually poison a food source as weeds that interrupt the pattern of their lawns.

In March, our local Native American Church dedicated a medicinal garden. I began thinking of what plants the ancestors used, to develop that information as a lesson. We’ll begin with that vocabulary in the lessons soon. If I get enough response, we may also create a download of common medicinal plants with Cherokee names and uses. If that sounds like something you want, just email me and say “I want the Cherokee medicinal plants download.”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why You Can't Find "Wendeyaho" in a Cherokee Dictionary

Q: I hear people singing something they call the "Cherokee Morning Song," but none of the words appear in my Cherokee dictionary.

A: The song, popularized by Walela, is legitimate. It was sung by women only as part of the morning prayers, facing the rising sun, welcoming the new day. The men sang a different song that could be blended or even done as a "round" with the women's song; I've heard it exactly once.

I've spoken to Elders who actually remember hearing it sung in the mornings. However, the words are NOT Cherokee. Opinion differs on whether the words are:

[1] Saponi, a Siouan language of the Virginia-Carolina panhandle,

[2] one of the Algonquin languages of the Virginia/Ohio Valley, such as Delaware, Shawnee or Mattaponi, or

[3] Tihanama, a linguistic isolate spoken by a nomadic trading group that migrated annually from lower Michigan to the Florida Panhandle.

[4] Yet another highly dubious source calls it "ancient Cherokee," which is doubtful. The same source claims that there were actually over 30 Cherokee clans.

The only research on it by recognized academics points to Tihanama. According to one of the remaining fluent speakers, the phrase means “Our hearts (spirits) are strong.” There is no evidence for the claim often repeated on the Internet that it means “I am of the Great Spirit, aho.”

One Elder told us the song was actually brought by "the help," those who tended fields for the Cherokee landowners. These could have been refugees from any of the groups mentioned, who sought refuge in the Cherokee highlands after the destruction of the coastal and lowland nations. It could also refer to the Tihanama, who often hired out as seasonal farm labor. That would also explain why the Coolidge sisters and my own sources remember hearing it in the mountain communities of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, in areas along the migratory route of the Tihanama.

Over the years, it has been adopted by many Cherokees, especially in the eastern portions of Tennessee and Kentucky. So despite its pedigree and linguistics, it has become a Cherokee song. Because of the song's popularity, the phrase may survive the impending demise of the Tihanama language.

Q: But I've been to presentations where Native elders have sung and even taught the song. Why would they do that?

A: Because [1] it's a pretty song, [2] thanks to the recordings, people may already be familiar with it, [3] it's simple enough for beginners to learn, and [4] the presenter doesn't speak Cherokee or know any real Cherokee prayer songs.