STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The people across this country given priority for coronavirus vaccines include first responders, medical workers and, in some places, Cherokee speakers. The Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma, offered vaccines to some of the few people who speak its language. To understand why it mattered so much to keep Cherokee speakers alive, it helps to meet one. We reached Meda Nix on the phone from the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Ok. She teaches Cherokee in this region where she grew up.
MEDA NIX: I'm from Jay, which is a little town north of here.
INSKEEP: Do you spell that J-A-Y?
NIX: Uh-huh. I was born and raised there from - of course, I'm full-blood Cherokee, and of course, we're in the heart of Cherokee country here in northeast Oklahoma.
INSKEEP: And so I have to ask kind of a rude question, which you can...
NIX: How old am I? (Laughter).
INSKEEP: Well, yeah. That's where I was going with this. Yes, ma'am.
NIX: Well, I don't mind telling you. I'm 72.
She teaches a language that is centuries old. American schoolchildren commonly learn a fact about it. Cherokee was only spoken until the 1800s, when a Cherokee man named Sequoyah developed his own system for writing it. The language nevertheless declined as Cherokees were forced out of the Eastern United States.
Did you grow up speaking Cherokee in the home?
NIX: No, actually, I did not. My mom spoke. I grew up in the Indian Methodist Church, and then people that came to visit would speak Cherokee. So she spoke Cherokee all the time.
INSKEEP: When Meda Nix grew up, she worked for the Indian Health Service. She did not try to speak Cherokee herself until after she retired. That's when she traveled to the traditional Cherokee heartland in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. She came back to Oklahoma and went out for a drive.
NIX: And I just started seeing these children's faces, you know, and I thought, oh, my goodness, this is where I'm supposed to be. So, you know, I just started praying about it, and God just put that in my heart, that I needed to learn the language.
INSKEEP: She signed up for a class. And the instructor took the students outside, giving the names for trees and birds. That's when it all started to come back to her. Today, she reads a Bible that is in both English and Cherokee. As we spoke, she turned to John 3:16 - for God so loved the world, he gave his only son.
NIX: So if you go right next to it, it's written in Cherokee. OK - (speaking Cherokee).
INSKEEP: She now teaches Cherokee to a class of fifth-graders.
When you preserve this language, what is it that you're preserving?
NIX: Everything - our culture, our beliefs, our ways. I went to a small church up in Jay, and the pastor was Cherokee. And before Sunday school would start, we'd all be sitting in the sanctuary, and they'd just be laughing. And I'd say, now, I know you told a story; now tell it in English. He said, no, it's not funny in English.
NIX: So if you ever - it's just the way it's told.
INSKEEP: Have you lost some Cherokee speakers in the pandemic?
NIX: Mmm hmm. We have. In fact, I just lost a brother. It's been, I guess, maybe a couple of months now.
INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry.
NIX: And so, yes, we've lost speakers.
INSKEEP: So when you were offered the vaccine, did you have any doubts or hesitation?
NIX: At first, I wasn't going to. I thought, no, I don't want to take that. But I was able to participate in a Zoom meeting with a COVID team, I guess, and some elders and some speakers, and they asked some of the same questions that I wanted answers to. So after that, I felt a lot better about it. Of course, the week that we were going to get the vaccines (laughter), then I got scared again. I thought, oh, my goodness, Meda (laughter). Then I thought, no, I'm going to do this.
INSKEEP: What was scary?
NIX: I guess just thinking about the side effects and what might happen, you know? But like I said, I believe in God, and I believe in his sovereignty, and I believe what he says. He says, I'm going to be with you. I'm not going to forsake you; I'm going to take care of you. And I believe that.
INSKEEP: She got the first shot. She is waiting for the second. And she continues teaching Cherokee to fifth-graders. One way to learn the language is to sing hymns.
NIX: OK, I'm going to do this. We'll do "At The Cross," if that's OK.
INSKEEP: Yes, ma'am.
NIX: That OK? (Singing in Cherokee).
INSKEEP: Meda Nix of Tahlequah, Ok., is one of the Cherokee speakers who were early recipients of a coronavirus vaccine. The hymn she's singing is called "At The Cross" and is also sung by the Cherokee National Youth Choir.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE CROSS")
CHEROKEE NATIONAL YOUTH CHOIR: (Singing in Cherokee).
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