Getting vaccinated against covid-19 may do more than save your life. It could also save your language. That’s what Cherokee schoolteacher Meda Nix told National Public Radio (NPR) in an interview last week.
A member of the Cherokee Nation — a sovereign tribal government within the geographic boundaries of the United States — Nix grew up in an English and Cherokee speaking home, then studied Cherokee later as an adult. She is one of only around 2500 people who speak the language fluently today.
Native Americans — including the Cherokee — have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the US Center for Disease Control, contracting the disease at a rate 3.5 times higher than white Americans. The Cherokee Nation specifically has seen more than 11,000 coronavirus cases and 63 deaths. At least 20 of those who passed were Cherokee speakers, per NPR.
Initially, Nix had not planned on being vaccinated. Then tribal leaders held a Zoom call with covid-19 specialists, urging Cherokees to step up — not just for their lives but for their culture.
Cherokee is a member of the Iroquoian language family. Its writing system does not use an alphabet. Rather, 85 distinct characters represent the sounds used for speaking the language with one character assigned to each discrete syllable found in a word. For this and other reasons, the US Secretary of State considers Cherokee to be a Class IV language. Language classifications refer to the average amount of time required for English speakers to achieve proficiency when studying full time. At 88 weeks, Class IV languages are the most difficult group.
Nix teaches Cherokee to fifth graders, starting with vocabulary she learned from her mother about the natural world — such as the names for trees and birds. NPR reports that “by preserving her language, she is really preserving ‘everything. Our culture. Our beliefs. Our ways.'”