The Raven Learns Cherokee

by Translation Guy on August 15, 2012

As the oldest kid in his class at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Kituwah Academy, a language immersion school for preschool through fifth grade students located in Cherokee, North Carolina, seventeen-year-old John David Kurman was twice the size of his four-year-old classmates.

John David likes to study languages. Spanish and Chinese in school, he also studied Latin in middle school and is starting on Arabic next. He likes the idea of being able to have a conversation with someone in a strange language—the stranger the better.

From studying Chinese, JD learned a lot about Chinese culture. So for his next language, he wanted to learn something that would provide insight into his own culture. So what could be more American than a native American language? As a Southerner, Cherokee was the most robust native American language in the area, plus it is written in Sequoia‘s cool script. From reading the Cherokee Phoenix the tribal paper, he contacted the Kitowah Academy and talked them into creating a program for a summer internship.

So this past July, for  eight hours a day, JD was totally immersed in Cherokee with a bunch of four year olds. JD had a chance for some quality Cherokee time with the other kids, doing blocks, sharing snacks, going on field trips, all in Cherokee.

“The good thing about it was that I was completely surrounded by the language. If I wanted to communicate I had only my Cherokee words and body language to do it. I was forced to learn the language. The bad part was that sometimes I had no clue what was going on. All I could do was sit in the chair and try to figure out what was going on.”

Most of the other kids knew their words and could make simple sentences. Some even spoke it at home. When the kids realized how hopeless John David was, they started whispering to him in English. But that was forbidden. The two teachers always insisted on Cherokee.

So how much did he learn? “Not as much as I had hoped. It’s harder than Chinese. Plus you lean everything in the long version, which nobody ever speaks. Everything is all abbreviated.”

(This has got to be some linguistic universal—that the second language you spend all that time learning in school is completely different then the one everyboy is using on the street.)

So I ask him, “OK, JD, say something in Cherokee. Did you learn any pick-up lines for meeting  girls? That’s an important skill set in any language.”

“No, they didn’t teach me any of those.”

“Yeah, probably not appropriate discourse fro pre-K. Something more age-appropriate. ‘Give me a cookie!’ You must have practiced that. Say, “Give me a cookie,’ in Cherokee.”

David’s got to think about that one. “ Give me the cookie, that’s going to be a little complicated when you say that. When you use that verb and there are four different endings, give me that round object, give me that long, slender object….”

“Round object, JD. Cookies are round…”.

I never did learn to how to say, “Give me a cookie,” in Cherokee, but I can give JD a hard time since I’ve known him so long, (his Mom is my CFO). I respect him for taking the initiative to go out and make this happen. His story reminds me of the  story of  Colonneh, “the Raven,” known among the paleface as Sam Houston, father of the great state of Texas.

One morning, at the age of 15, Sam Houston did not appear for work at the store. It was weeks before the family learned that their wayward son had crossed into Indian country and was living with the Cherokee. He was adopted by Ahuludgi, the principal chief of the Cherokee in 1809, and lived among the people for many years and remained a friend and supporter of the Cherokee Nation until his dieing day.

Houston later wrote, “It was the moulding period of life, when the heart, just charmed into the feverish hopes and dreams of youth, looks wistfully around on all things for light and beauty…


  1. Nancy Finck says:

    Cherokee…hmm, there is a language I never thought about learning.

  2. Carl Nielson says:

    I really never thought about whether such institutes existed for Native American languages, it seems a bit surprising.

  3. Eight hours a day, you wouldn’t catch my kid doing something like that.

  4. Wilber says:

    More power to young JD Kurman, whose passion for languages strikes a real chord. I myself became a confirmed language nut at 13. I learned a couple of common ones first and went in quest of odder and odder ones. What’s weird is that the very oddest one I took up launched my first real, rewarding career after years of a poor misspent slacker youth! (And my boyhood chum’s own choice of an odd language led him to world renown in his narrow field and the near-reverence of millions).

  5. Lillybelle says:

    You nailed it, pickup lines are the core reason I started learning other languages.

  6. Really interesting piece, thanks for sharing it.

  7. It’s really quite inspiring that this young man is helping keep this language alive. Good for him.

  8. People still learn Latin?

  9. Louis Harvey says:

    Quite a difficult undertaking for the kid, bit of a culture shock I would expect.

  10. I had no idea that Cherokke was such a complicated language to learn, judging by how difficult it was for this seemingly quite accomplished young man.

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