The Cherokee Whisperer

Hastings Shade was a very good friend of mine. He was a full blood Cherokee who spoke English as a second language. He taught his native language and was a very interesting and insightful man. One day as we were speaking Cherokee to each other I asked him a question about a word in our language that I had been wondering about since childhood. The word ‘Ka Ma Ma (kaw mama) means butterfly and it also is how you say elephant. I asked him why the word for butterfly and the word for elephant was the same in our native language. You can’t get more different than a butterfly compared to an elephant and I had always thought it may be a mistake. His answer was very impactful. He said, “My ancestors told me that their ancestors told them the reason was this. Our language is so old that a long, long time ago, when the mammoth would appear in the distance atop a hill, his ears looked like a butterfly.”

When you ponder ancient languages and ancient people you realize for thousands of years things were basically the same. But in the past one to two hundred years, life has changed drastically for our indigenous people. Perhaps that is why my basic philosophy on child safety is this: To be effective in today’s world, we must be educated. It may help us if we learn how to address present day issues with the knowledge of where we came from as tribal people.

Each tribal language is unique, and our native languages help define our unique cultures. The tribal name ‘Cherokee’ comes from our original name ‘Tsa La Ghi’ (Cha la gee) meaning ‘The Principal People.’ Over the centuries it has evolved into Cherokee. In Cherokee, Hu Ni Wa (huh nee wah) is how we say ‘excuse me’ but the literal translation is ‘you’re in my way.’ The word is spoken with no malice or meanness, just the simple statement of a fact. There is no word for ‘love.’ In Cherokee we say gu gay u hi (gugh gay you hee) which translates as ‘something I’m stingy with, or I really like it.’ And in our language there is no word for ‘goodbye.’ We say Do Na Da Go huh I (Doe naw daw go huh ee) which translates to ‘until we see each other again.’

My Cherokee grandmother who helped raise me also spoke English as a second language. However, those few times I would hear her speak in her native tongue, she would always whisper. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally knew the reason why.

She had been born in 1892, Indian Territory, into the Rattlingourd Conrad family. The Conrad had been forced from their homes in North Carolina to Indian Territory by the government’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. She was only 5 years old when the Dawes Act was passed by congress. The Dawes Act was a census of members of tribes that had been marched to Indian Territory. It seems however that the final intent was to divide and take lands away from the tribes; but that would be a whole other blog.

When she was 8 years old her father died and she was sent to an orphanage in California. There she was punished each time she spoke a native word. She would be punished until she could learn to speak English. She would always whisper her native words even as an adult. This is a perfect example of the term generational trauma.

Our languages, our cultures, are extremely valuable to us as native people. Not in the dollar and cents way but in the mind, body, spiritual, and emotional way. It is who we were, who we are, and who our future selves will be.

Whether you are an officer, teacher, social worker or any other kind of Child Safety Advocate, I believe it is important for us to always recognize the tribal background of our client. Our youth may learn negative behaviors from their parents, who learned from their parents, and generational trauma often plays a role in many of these behaviors. It is import for us as professionals to try to understand, or at least be aware, of the factors involved when dealing with our native people. If you are not native or not from the same tribal community as the people with whom you are working, strive to become familiar with their language , beginning with learning their way of saying ‘hello.’ The listener will many times react in a positive way and acknowledge the respect you have presented via language.

My AMBER Alert in Indian Country colleagues and I look forward to sharing our experiences with you, and more importantly, learning from you and your community as we venture forward together.

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Do Na Da Go huh I (Doe Naw Daw Go Huh ee).