Published On: Mon, Mar 21st, 2016

Chief seeks new policies governing Cherokee Language credits





High school students in North Carolina have been able to use credits earned in Cherokee Language courses towards their “foreign language” requirements for several years now.  In passing a bill in July 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly made it mandatory that the institutions of the University of North Carolina system recognize the Cherokee language for that requirement.

Principal Chief Patrick Lambert said his office learned from tribally-paid staff at Swain County High School on Wednesday, March 16 that Cherokee Language courses (Cherokee Language 101 and 102) would no longer be taught at the school.  “They learned that through a school assembly at the high school, but there was no official communication to them that they were ending the program.”

Once he heard the news, Chief Lambert immediately began to make phone calls and contacted Swain County School Board member Mellie Burns who informed him that the language course would still be offered at the elementary school and the middle school.

“It was at the high school that there was a problem,” he related.

The problem dealt with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s rule that 91 percent of a high school staff be deemed “highly qualified”.

“For example, if I teach math then I have to have a degree in math, and I have to pass a state test that shows that I know my subject area,” said Chief Lambert.  “There is no program that exists for Cherokee language like that, and that, in and of itself, is the problem that we’re running into.”

Since there were no “highly qualified” instructors in Cherokee language, Chief Lambert said that Swain County decided to drop the courses.  “Upon further discussion with them, we found out that Swain County currently operates at 97 percent “highly qualified” teachers.”

After discussions with the Swain County School Board, Chief Lambert sent an Executive Memorandum on Thursday, March 17 to Sam Pattillo, Swain County School Superintendent, in which he wrote, “Both the Tribe and Swain County School’s commitment to inclusion and our mutual commitment to ensuring that our language be given full academic credit is a worthy measure and one that I plan on working to ensure that we preserve.”

The Memo continued, “Starting immediately, my office will begin the work of pulling all parties together and working with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and our friends in the General Assembly to ensure that the state meets its commitment to certify our Cherokee speakers as ‘highly qualified’ teachers.  This certification is necessary so our students can continue to receive full academic credit for learning the Cherokee language.”

Following the memo, it was decided that the courses will not be eliminated.

Burns said she was very pleased with the Memorandum from Chief Lambert.  “I was very pleased with his positive tone and his commitment and willingness to work with the Swain County School System to accomplish a more long-term solution to the problem.”

She said she is also pleased with the input and work from Pattillo on the issue.  “He truly desires to see Cherokee language as a part of our curriculum in a way that it is going to be very beneficial to the students who take that class.  He wants it to be a class of substance.”

Burns added, “We want to secure a long-term solution so that every year we’re not battling the same battle…I do feel confident that we will work very closely, openly and honestly with tribal leadership moving forward to try to help come up with a real, long-term solution.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians currently pays the salaries for Cherokee language instructors in Jackson County Schools, Graham County Schools and Swain County Schools.

Brenda Norville, an EBCI tribal member who works with the Graham County Indian Education Program, said language courses are offered at the elementary school, middle school and high school level there.  Students at Robbinsville High School can use the courses to count towards their foreign language requirement.

“It’s very successful,” she said of the program which averages 10-15 students and has had as many as 21.  “The availability of the course and the child being able to choose to take Cherokee language is huge.”

Jackson County Schools were on Spring Break and were unable to be contacted for this article.

Chief Lambert commented he would like to see all of the counties counting the course towards the foreign language requirement.  “We need to get some uniformity across the three counties that primarily serve Cherokee students.”

He said tribal officials also need to sit down with state officials to find a way to certify Cherokee language instructors so they can meet the “highly qualified” criteria.  “There isn’t any one that’s going to tell us that our fluent speakers, who speak the language every day, that they don’t know their own language.”

Chief Lambert wanted to stress that he feels that Cherokee is not a foreign language.  “It is North Carolina’s first language.”