The Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program graduated six students Saturday, Dec. 14, during a special commencement ceremony at the Armory Municipal Center in Tahlequah.

Jeromy Miller and Rebecca Nagle, of Tahlequah; Rachelle Johnson, of Welling; Jonathan Blackbear, of Locust Grove; Eric Marshall, of Rocky Mountain; and Schon Duncan, of Stilwell, each received a copper gorget, a bandolier bag and a certificate of completion during the ceremony.

“The Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program is a vital part of our efforts to not only preserve and protect the Cherokee language, but to perpetuate it so that generations from now, more Cherokees are speaking our beautiful language,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “That’s why we’re investing more dollars into this and other language programs, allowing more Cherokee citizens the opportunity to not only learn the Cherokee language, but to then teach it to others.”

The Cherokee Nation established the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program in 2014 to teach adults to be proficient conversational Cherokee speakers and teachers. Participants receive a $10 per hour educational stipend and typically spend 40 hours per week for two years immersed in the Cherokee language with master-level fluent Cherokee speakers.

Master speakers Doris Shell, Cora Flute, Gary Vann and Jerry Ross teach participants the Cherokee language in a classroom setting. In addition to classroom learning, students are encouraged to visit Cherokee-fluent elders in order to learn and practice speaking the language. The students also visit community organizations and schools to showcase and teach the language.

“This experience has been very fulfilling,” said Blackbear. “When I first saw the program being advertised I knew it was something I wanted to do. I came from working as a pharmacy tech at Hastings, and a lot of times our first language-speaking elders didn’t quite understand what was being presented to them so now if I find myself back in health I will be able to communicate with them in our language and make a difference.”

Blackbear said his plans are to continue learning the language, but also to pass it on to his family and community.

“I want to be able to get to the point where we hear Cherokee being spoken on a daily basis, and now with my completion of this program that’s the next big step for me to be able to help teach my family and the communities out there the language and make people realize it’s still alive, it’s still here, we just have to continue to share it,” Blackbear said.

The program has now graduated 16 conversational, second-language Cherokee speakers since its first graduating class in 2016. This year is the program’s largest class of graduates.

“This cohort of graduates is our largest yet, and we now have six new language advocates and learners with conversational speaking ability and the skills to teach other learners,” said Ryan Mackey, curriculum supervisor. “With the new expansion under Chief Hoskin’s leadership, we will be able to graduate as many as sixteen new learners a year.”

As part of his first 100 days initiatives, Chief Hoskin proposed the largest investment in language programs in the tribe’s history, which was approved by the Council of the Cherokee Nation in November. The initiative included dedicating millions of dollars in business profits to create a new language program facility as well as growing the size of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.

The program will bring in new students every six months beginning in 2020.

For more information including program qualifications, visit https://language.cherokee.org/language-programs/cherokee-language-master-apprentice-program/ or call the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program office at 918-207-4964.