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Cherokee Gospel songs and language revitalization.

Cherokee music, like other Cherokee art forms, was and continues to be an integral part of special ceremonies as well as daily life. Over the past three centuries, Cherokee music not only incorporated European American and African American traditions (fiddling, shape-note hymn singing, banjo playing, and string-band music), but influenced these traditions in return. Cherokee men sang to lead dances (the Bear Dance, the Eagle Dance, the Quail Dance, and the Horse Dance) in various traditional ceremonies.



Other traditional uses of song included the singing of prayer formulas. In the late nineteenth century, ethnologist James Mooney documented medicine formulas sung by shamans in healing rituals. Songs documented by Mooney were also associated with the going-to-water and sweat lodge ceremonies.

By the early nineteenth century, tribal members were learning Christian hymns from Moravian, Presbyterian, and Baptist missionaries. Following the introduction of Sequoyah's syllabary (a syllabary is a set of symbols that represent sounds or syllables of a language) in 1821, one of the first books printed in the Cherokee language and orthography was a hymn book. (Duke, 2007). During the Trail of Tears in 1838-39, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns "Amazing Grace" and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" in their native language while incarcerated in stockades and while being marched westward. Over one third of the twelve thousand Cherokee died in the infamous Nunna dual Tsuny (Trail Where They Cried), or "Trail of Tears." During this terrible trek, families sang songs in the traditional language to locate their kin and to bring comfort to the grieving. The Cherokee language and songs held the people together. Cherokee people still sing these songs to acknowledge the experiences of their ancestors during the Trail of Tears. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (the descendants of those who remained in the mountains of western North Carolina) kept alive traditions of instrumental fiddle music, of hymns in Cherokee, and of older, traditional Cherokee songs and dance music.

While many Cherokee practice the traditional religion and have revived it in recent decades, hymns and gospel music are also deeply ingrained in Cherokee culture. Perhaps ironically, the hymns now serve to keep the Cherokee language alive. When linguist and cultural anthropologist Margaret Bender studied the use of Sequoyah's syllabary by the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina she found that "the Cherokee songbook or hymnal, a pocket-sized,
Vowel Sounds
 a, as a in father, or short as a in rival
 e, as e in they, or short as e in met
 i, as i in pique or short as i in pit
 o, as o in note, approaching aw as in law
 u, as oo in fool, or short as u in pull
 v, as u in but, nasalized

Consonant Sounds
 g, nearly as in English. but approaching to k
 d, nearly as in English, but approaching to t
 Syllables beginning with g except ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])
 ga have sometimes the power of k
 A (go), S (du). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (dv) are sometimes
 sounded to, tu, tv and syllables written with tl,
 except ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) tla, sometimes vary to dl

all-syllabary book [was] carried around faithfully by most of the elderly Cherokees I knew." Today, both the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma actively use hymn singing to help younger adults and children learn the language. (Bender, 2002).

To present the songs, it is necessary to review the Cherokee Syllabary invented by the great Cherokee statesman Sequoyah. For a biography and historical background on Sequoyah, I refer readers to the Cherokee Nation website: While the original syllabary consisted of 85 symbols, today's official syllabary consists of 84 symbols; the G (nah) syllable is no longer used because it is so close to [THETA] (na). The Table below lists the syllabary symbols and the English pronunciation guide as established by the Reverend Samuel Worcester in the 1820s.

Because of the simplicity of Sequoyah's syllabary system, many (Tsa-la-gi or Cherokee) became literate in a short time. In 1827, the Cherokee Phoenix (Tsa-La-Gi Tsu-Le-Hi-Sa-Nv-Hi) was established. Funded by the Cherokee Council, this first Native American newspaper was published in New Echota, Georgia. Elias Boudinot was the first editor and Reverend Samuel Worcester, a missionary, was director. On February 21, 1828, the first issue of the paper was printed. (Wardell, 1991). In time, other works including the Holy Bible and the Cherokee hymn book would be printed in Sequoyah's syllabary.

The Cherokee people consider their traditional language and songs sacred, valued as gifts from the Creator. These sacred gifts have been threatened for decades. Although Cherokee history is filled with stories of success, resilience, and flexibility in the face of adversity, language use has been on the decline for generations.



The Nation took action in 1999 by assembling a task force comprised of Cherokee speakers, elders, educators, and concerned citizens. The task force was charged with developing a comprehensive language program that would protect, preserve, and promote the Cherokee language and culture.

Studies conducted in 2002 and 2006 by the Administration for Native Americans and the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program revealed that no Cherokee under the age of forty possessed mastery of the language. The government of the Cherokee Nation took a resolute stand against this threat; it would not allow the Cherokee language or songs to die.

Drawing upon lessons learned from successful language revitalization programs in Hawaii, the task force worked with the tribal government's Education Division to build three preschool language immersion classrooms and implemented a system to monitor the young students' progress. The Cherokee leadership knew that, while essential, these interventions were not enough. They needed to find a mechanism for getting young Cherokee citizens interested in learning the language in the first place-a challenge faced by many Native Nations today. (Hinton, 2001).

In October 2000, the Cherokee nation discovered a powerful source of inspiration-singing. So it launched the Cherokee National Youth Choir. As a critical component of the Nation's comprehensive language program, the Choir sings songs and hymns in the Cherokee language. Now comprised of forty Cherokee youth between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, the Choir seeks to interest the youth in learning their Native tongue, assist in the first steps toward proficiency, and promote language use through ceremonies and performance. Besides exposing young people to Cherokee history, language, and culture, the choir embraces a long-term goal: to inspire them to one day teach their children and grandchildren the language and the traditions.

The choir's first album, Voices of the Creator's Children, was an instant success and won a prestigious Nammy for Best Gospel/Christian Recording at the Native American Music Awards (NAMA) in 2002. The album includes songs from the historic Trail of Tears and hymns translated into Cherokee. The Choir's second album, Building One Fire, won another Nammy for Best Gospel/Christian Recording in 2003 and was one of NAMA's five nominees for Album of the Year. These awards, while a source of tremendous pride for the choir and the tribal government, are secondary to the impact the choir is having as a source of community pride. The choir's songs are heard regularly on the radio, on home stereos, at community gatherings, in church services, and at public ceremonies across the Cherokee Nation.



The Songs

The Cherokee, like most Native nations, express cultural notions in their music. Cherokee hymns today embody a rich musical tradition that reflects their own particular blending of Christian teaching and traditional Spiritual views. The tradition of singing Gospel songs in the native language continues in both the Eastern and Western Bands of the Cherokee Nation.

I have been studying Gospel songs with a Cherokee elder, Sallie Arch of Cherokee, NC. This presentation of Gospel Hymns examines four popular hymns, such as Christ's Second Coming (to the tune of Amazing Grace). From the teachings I have received, I have attempted to give a Cherokee perspective and highlight some of the culturally relevant meanings of the songs.




Administration for Native Americans (U.S. Dept. Of Health and Human Services) Language Report. (2002). "Ga-du-gi: Working Together to Preserve the Cherokee Language." Online at

Bender, Margaret. (2002). Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. University of North Carolina Press.

Duke University Libraries online library. Retrieved April 2007. hppt://

Hinton, Leanne and Kenneth Hale (ed). (2001). The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. San Diego, Ca. Academic Press.

Kituwah Preservation and Education Program. (2006). "The Cherokee Language Comprehensive Study." Summary online at

Mooney, James. (1992). History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Asheville, NC.: Historical Images.

Cherokee Master Artist Doroth Sullivan can be contacted at Memory Circle Studio

By Bernard "Shiloh" Parresol, Ph.D.

Illustrations by Dorothy Tidwell Sullivan, Cherokee Master Artist

To download the Cerokee font for your computer visit: http:/
"It is said that in ancient times, when writing first began, a man
named Moses made marks an a stone. I can agree with you by what name
to call those marks and that will be writing and can be understood."
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Author:Parresol, Bernard "Shiloh"
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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