By Brooklyn Brown
Western Carolina Univeristy’s Cherokee Language Program recently received a $11,700 donation from the John W. Heisse Fund for Historic Preservation for the Eastern Cherokee Histories in Translation Project.
The ECHT Project is headed by Sara Snyder, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology and director of the Cherokee Language Program. ECHT works to translate historic documents written in Cherokee Syllabary. With their new donation, Snyder will be working with fluent speakers Wiggins Blackfox and Tom Belt as well as WCU Cherokee Studies graduate student Barnes Powell to translate turn of the 20th century writings from Blackfox’s great-great-grandfather, Inoli, and Cherokee intellectual and cultural preservationist Will West Long.
Long is known for contributing to the work of many notable anthropologists like James Mooney and Frank Gouldsmith Speck. Long is also a well-known Cherokee mask maker with masks featured in the National Museum of the American Indian.
For the first time, Long’s personal journals are being translated from Cherokee into English. Snyder recognizes this as an opportunity to give Long credit for his own work as an author and preservationist outside of the shadow of anthropologists like Mooney and Speck.
“We’re uncovering so much, it almost feels like solving puzzles. We’re capturing these beautiful pictures of what Cherokee life was like 100+ years ago,” Snyder said. “He kept a daily journal from 1891 into the 1940s. This is shedding a light on this whole anthropological exchange with Mooney from his perspective with his own personal accounts of life in his community.”
The team is also translating the journals of Blackfox’s great-great-grandfather, Inoli, which means black fox in Cherokee language. A portion of Inoli’s writings collected by Long and Mooney have been translated before by Jack Kilpatrick and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick, whose translations titled “Chronicles of Wolftown” are featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s library archives. The ECHT Project is translating the rest of Inoli’s journal. Snyder estimates the Kilpatricks to have translated only about 10% of Inoli’s work.
Similar to Long, Inoli scribed the daily lives of the Cherokee community from 1848 to 1888, notating events like council meetings and church gatherings. Through their journals, Inoli and Long preserved Cherokee language as well as Cherokee history and culture. Blackfox believes both Cherokee writers had a premonition of Cherokee language and culture loss in the 20th century and beyond. “They knew what would be going on today, what was coming,” he said. Blackfox recalls his grandmother using a gardening analogy to explain what Cherokee language and culture would face.
“Nobody grows big gardens anymore, like 3 or 4 acres,” Blackfox said. “Whenever you quit using the land, trees start growing in it. My grandma would say ‘The trees are coming.’”
Belt retired in 2018 after years of teaching and serving as coordinator for WCU’s Cherokee Language Program. He was honored by the WCU Board of Trustees at the 2021 spring commencement ceremony with the highest honorary degree, a doctorate of humane letters. He also just published a book, “Sounds of Tohi: Cherokee Health and Well-Being in Southern Appalachia” with associate professor Lisa Lefler. For Belt, the ECHT Project is an exercise in translating Cherokee language and in preserving Cherokee culture and lifeways.
“Inoli and Will West Long were trying to preserve, to document certain aspects of the way Cherokee people live so we wouldn’t forget and so the coming generations would know how they came to be, what they were and why things are how they are now,” Belt said. “It’s not only an act of preserving history but teaching ways of being.”
With this groundbreaking translation work, the ECHT Project hopes to produce several volumes of translated diaries for scholars, second language learners and Cherokee community members alike to learn from and appreciate.