Native American Heritage Month: A journey to Cherokee, the sovereign nation in N.C.

CHEROKEE, N.C. (WTVD) -- November is Native American Heritage Month and it's a time when cultural events ramp up at Cherokee Middle School in Cherokee.

"We're doing it now once a week for this month. Normally it's like maybe every month we have somebody come in," said Miranda Stamper, Cherokee Middle School teacher and one of the more than 16,000 tribal citizens making up the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Stamper said Native American Heritage Month is a time when her school, which is in the heart of the Qualla Boundary or Cherokee Indian Reservation as it's often called, celebrates and educates about American Indian tribes.

"Right now, we have 14 different tribes represented in our middle school," Stamper said.

The Qualla Boundary is a sovereign nation and home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI), the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. It's in the western part of the state covering a 56,000-acre boundary spanning five counties and 10 communities:

Big Cove, Towstring, Yellowhill, Wolfetown, Big Y, Birdtown, 3,200 Acre Tract, Snowbird, Cherokee County, and Painttown.

"That this was the birthplace of the Cherokee, it's very significant," said EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed

The region has seen a renaissance of sorts in the past few decades especially following the opening of Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort in 1997.

"Because of our enterprises, we have literally changed the economic landscape of western North Carolina, which historically had some of the poorest counties in the entire state," Sneed said.

Though Sneed said tribal government leaders continue working to ensure financial security for generations to come, the pandemic has created another urgent priority for the tribe.

"Pre-COVID, we had a little over 200, probably 220 fluent Cherokee speakers left," Sneed said. "I think we're down to 182 now.

That's dramatic no matter what when people are sick, and when people are dying, but, when you frame it in the context of this person is one of the few people left that holds the language and culture and our history and our values --one of the few people left that holds the language and culture, it's like losing a national treasure, extremely dramatic," Sneed added

Though teachers such as Stamper already implement Cherokee language lessons, they will soon become more formal.

Sneed and the Tribal Speakers Council are working to formalize and fund a program to teach Cherokee to Tribal citizens to ensure the language is passed down.
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