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Tribe mourns loss of elder, one of its last monolingual Cherokee speakers

Posted at 6:17 PM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-26 07:17:50-04

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians lost one of its last monolingual Cherokee speakers this week.

When elders of a tribe die, members said they not only lose a friend but a part of their culture.

There’s very few members of the tribe who still speak their native language.

Mack Vann was among the last of the tribe’s monolingual speakers.

He died this week at the age of 88.

Friends and tribal members said the loss is like losing a piece of their history.

“It just leaves a hole and I think it’s hard to replace anyone like him," James McIntosh said. "He was so ingrained in our culture.”

“When I heard about the death of Mr. Vann, it brought me back to my own Cherokee grandfather," said Virginia Drywater-Whitekiller, a professor at Northeastern State University. “I had the same feelings again because there’s such a loss of culture when one of the Keetoowahs passes on.”

Ernestine Berry works at the John Hair Cultural Center Museum in Tahlequah.

She said even before Vann’s passing, the language was in jeopardy when the federal government forbid them from speaking the language.

"This is a story that happened over and over with our people," Berry said. "It’s not just peculiar to my family. It was families throughout our population.”

Right now, there’s an exhibit at the museum with letters written in Cherokee.

Berry is filled with hope when she sees the younger generation looking over the documents, concerned over a loss of their culture.

"They’re beginning to try to learn the language and to read and write, so we do have a glimmer of hope there with our young people," Berry said.

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