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First Lady Jill Biden visits: 'We stand with the Cherokee Nation' on Native language preservation

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited the Cherokee Nation immersion school in Tahlequah on Friday to see the tribe's language preservation efforts at work.
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First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited the Cherokee Nation immersion school in Tahlequah on Friday to see the tribe's language preservation efforts at work.

First Lady Jill Biden saw Cherokee Nation’s language preservation efforts first hand when she visited their Tahlequah immersion school on Friday.

The tribe has ramped up efforts in recent years to teach Cherokee to a new generation, including a $16 million total investment pledged in 2019.

The Build Back Better Act sets aside $200 million for grants to help train Native language teachers.

"This is so important to us. We want you to know that President Biden and his administration are a partner to you. I hope you know that. We stand with the Cherokee Nation," Biden said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary — joined Biden on the visit to Cherokee Nation. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and said she doesn’t speak their language because of the federal government’s forced assimilation of Indians at boarding schools.

"My mother was beaten in school by educators when she spoke Keres, and because of that trauma, she could not bear to teach me or my siblings. After I had my child, my mother felt safe to teach them our language. We’re lucky," Haaland said.

Haaland and Biden got to hear some students practice their Cherokee Friday afternoon. Cherokee Nation will open a second immersion school in Adair County next year, and Biden praised their determined effort to teach the language to a new generation.

"It’s a beautiful reminder that the spirit of a people cannot be lost when there are those that are willing to hold it into their hearts, to fight for it with love, dedication and strength," Biden said.

During Biden’s visit, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the Cherokee language survived European contact, war, forced removal and the federal government’s attempts to eradicate Indians.

"Today, we face foes greater than all of that combined. We face the passage of time and the fragility of human life," Hoskin said.

More than 60 of Cherokee Nation’s estimated 2,000 remaining first-language speakers have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.