Cherokee language in the spotlight

Cherokee actor Wes Studi, a presenter during the Oscars, made a portion of his comments in Cherokee.

It was a moment of cultural pride for many when an Oklahoma actor spoke in Cherokee during his presentation speech at the Oscars.

The country watched as a rich culture had its moment in the spotlight.

For RSU graduate Bekah Warren, the moment was personal.

“When actor Wes Studi honored veterans while speaking the Cherokee language at the Oscars, it was a major moment for me and Cherokees everywhere. To hear the ancient language of my people spoken at such an iconic pop culture event, where millions of people would hear it, was so inspiring. I cried and cheered! He could have presented solely in English and made history simply by being the first official Native American presenter, but I feel that he used his platform to humbly remind people we are still here,” she said.

Warren continued, “Despite forced removal and a continual pressure from the federal government to assimilate even as recently as 50 years ago, Cherokees are still here and are doing big things in this country. I think it says a lot about Cherokees and other indigenous people, the way we honor our difficult past without holding grudges — instead, we make a new way while maintaining our culture and language. I’m proud to be an American and a Cherokee, and it was moving to witness Wes Studi so poignantly display this balance of pride by honoring both the United States and the Cherokee Nation.”

Cherokee Nation Tribal Council member Keith Austin said it was a moment of pride for him, too.

“It was very fitting that Wes Studi used his moment in the spotlight as a presenter at the Oscars to honor our veterans and soldiers in the native tongue of the Cherokee People. The reaction of the world has been wonderful and makes me realize how groundbreaking it was when Cherokee Will Rogers hosted the Oscars eighty-four years earlier in 1934,” Austin said.

When asked why this on-screen moment was so important, Cherokee language professor, Dr. Leslie Hannah, was happy to explain.

“I think it was significant because he had the courage to actually do it—to get out there and speak Cherokee in front of millions of people in person and via television. That gave exposure to our language, to the struggle of our language, to Native American people in general,” Hannah said. “From my experience so many people think we’re extinct, actually. So for Wes Studi as an American Indian who is traditional, fluent in his language, to be asked to represent us to an audience of that magnitude was huge.”

Hannah described it as a flagship moment and said he hopes it was a message of encouragement to young Cherokees.

“To young Cherokees, this says ‘be proud of who you are. Don’t let popular society dictate who you think you should be. Don’t follow Hollywood stereotypes,’” he said. “ Wes played in the movie ‘Dances with Wolves.’ He was one of the ‘savages’ who was shot off the back of a horse, and that’s a stereotype. Hollywood has a stereotype of American Indians — and it’s typically a plains warrior. We are absolutely so much more than that. We are a progressive people. Our language is alive, it’s not well, but it’s alive. This was a chance for young Cherokees to look on the screen and see ‘he’s a Cherokee too.’ if he can do it, maybe I can too.”

He said it was refreshing to see a positive Cherokee image on-screen.

“In Hollywood we’re typically the enemy — just look at cowboy and Indian movies,” Hannah said. “Well, we’re not the enemy. We were Americans, before Americans were Americans. So, this was a pinnacle moment.”

Hannah teaches Cherokee language courses at RSU and said he hopes this pop culture moment encourages people to embrace the language—"I would love to see people learn the language, to keep it alive.”

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