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Preserving the Cherokee Language with Children's Books
by Davin Eldridge — Staff Writer Macon County News

The Kituwah Preservation & Education Program [KPEP] is taking measures to preserve the ancient language of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with colorful children's books written in the native Cherokee language and illustrated by local artists.

By commissioning artists throughout the region to illustrate the children's books, KPEP hopes to keep the near-extinct language alive by catching the interest of Cherokee youth at an early age and introducing them to their native tongue.

"Our language is kind of dying out, so this is the biggest and most important step we could take," said KPEP Electronic Media Coordinator Alexandro Cruz. The Kituwah academy is currently teaching the Cherokee language as a primary language to first grade children. There are now approximately 60 students in the language revitalization program.

To help teach the young students the Cherokee language, KPEP members concluded that it would be a good idea to publish children's books with the native language bound within each page. Moreover, all of the books contain traditional Cherokee stories handed down throughout the generations. The length and the subject matter of the books will grow along with the age of readers, said Cruz.

Though the stories were wrought in ages past, each with its own moral, they are presented in a modern manner-visually reflecting current culture and technology.

"A lot of people have the concept that we live in teepees and that kind of stuff, like that's how we are. That's a fictitious type of thing," said Cruz. "We want the kids to relate to the modern era. They aren't growing up as kids were 50 or 60 years ago," he said.

Depicting the new, retelling the old
When KPEP members began the process of publishing the books two years ago, they sought out local talent to help layout and illustrate the books. Right now KPEP currently has five books being illustrated, with an artist assigned to each book, which ranges from 12-40 pages, depending on the reading level. The artists are given a storyline, with page layouts directing them on what point of view should be used.

Among the illustrators are Amberly Rogers and Tony Mingacci, both of Franklin. When the two artists are not penciling pages for the books, they are inking the skin canvases of their customers at Estelle Tattoo Parlor

"It's a real honor that they chose me to help preserve their language for their children," said Rogers. "I get to take the stories they give me, bring them to life and make them exciting for children to see and learn from."

Echoing Rogers' appreciation for KPEP's language preservation efforts, Mingacci remarked on the subtle teachings he has encountered in the book he is working on.

"It's called ‘The Beast'," said Mingacci, pointing to a draft of one of his drawings of two young men attempting to subdue a snake. "It's pretty much about these boys finding their bravery. They encounter [the snake] and have to figure out how to get it away from them."

Without giving too much of the story away, Mingacci noted that it teaches children to be resourceful, to take care of others and the importance of responsibility. He chose to compose the art for the book with pencils and markers. The choice, as he described, rendered a sense of organic simplicity to the work.

The book I am working on now is called ‘The Elder Turtle'," said Rogers. "It's about a turtle that walks around and observes nature. He is the oldest turtle and knows a lot of things, however he is going around and telling you why these things are important and why they're beautiful." The moral of the story, Rogers said, was to be grateful for nature.

Unlike her counterpart who does all of his work by hand, Rogers drafts her works in pencil, then scans it digitally, and paints it in a photoshop program. "Doing this digitally allows me to achieve more vibrant colors," she said. "Because this story is about nature, and intended for younger children, I thought bright colors would work best."

"So far this has been really enjoyable," concluded Rogers, in sync with Mingacci. "These stories have a lot of history— drawing it for the new generation is definitely an honor." Both stories are on the threshold of completion, Rogers said, at which point they will begin work on another story. According to Cruz, once all art for the books is submitted, it will take 6-8 weeks for the works to be published.

The books will not only be distributed throughout the Cherokee Indian reservation, but they will also be distributed throughout North America, Cruz explained. "I feel like it means a lot to us for the main reason that we're creating and generating more reading material for the future of our Cherokee speakers and the survival of our Cherokee language," he concluded. "So it's a very important task that we must meet and excel in."

There is still need for artists or other people with talent, said Cruz.

For more information about the Language Immersion program of the Kituwah Preservation & Education Program, visit their website here.

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