Marie Junaluska: Reviving the Mother Language

Marie Junaluska, Photo by Sophia Noll.

Marie Junaluska, Photo by Sophia Noll.


By Sandi Tomlin-Sutker


Language is such a vital part of a person’s and a people’s identity that when the United States government, in the 1870’s, began to force Native American children into boarding schools, they also banned them from speaking their native tongue. The express goal of these schools was to completely eradicate “indian” identity and assimilate these children, not only disallowing their language but also native dress, hairstyles and customs.


Read the story of one woman’s work to reestablish her native language along with traditional dress and dance as a way of strengthening the cultural identity of her people.


I first met Marie Junaluska when she gave the invocation, in Cherokee, at the Community Foundation’s Power of the Purse luncheon. I was impressed with her powerful energy and the beauty of her language. I recently had the privilege of talking with her as part of our series on Cherokee women (see also Patty Grant’s Journey of Forgiveness and Juanita
Wilson: Walking the Right Path


Photo by Sophia Noll.

Photo by Sophia Noll.

Marie was raised in Wolf Town, a settlement on upper Soco Creek, on the East Cherokee reservation, in Jackson County. She now lives in Paint Town, on the lower Soco Creek, within the reservation in Jackson and Swain Counties. Both her parents were bilingual, and she spent her early years immersed in the Cherokee language. “All my relatives and friends spoke it; my mother never spoke a word of English to me, although she knew it.”


After the local schools were consolidated in the 1960s, Marie went to school in the town of Cherokee and her use of English picked up. Fewer children there spoke Cherokee, and some teachers even forbid speaking it. Her mother also began to speak English to the next generation so they didn’t have the ease with Cherokee that Marie’s generation had.


“There were influences of TV, and also there was a fear that children would be punished for speaking Cherokee, fears left over from the boarding school days.”


In 2005, with the first of many significant investments from Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program (KPEP) of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians initiated the development of a 10-year plan for the revitalization of the Cherokee language. As a starting point, the Foundation funded a survey whose results indicated that 460 fluent speakers were then living in Cherokee communities, with 72 percent of them over the age of 50 and elder speakers dying far more quickly than new speakers were emerging. Today not only is Cherokee taught in schools, babies as young as six months old attend immersion schools and are becoming more fluent than even their parents.


Marie, as she says, laughing, “wears many hats”! One hat is translator of educational materials and even fairy tales into the Cherokee language. She is in the third year of working with Juanita Wilson in the Right Path program that aims to foster leadership qualities in Cherokee youth from a cultural perspective. As I learned when talking with Juanita Wilson last fall, many Cherokee young people are not aware of their rich cultural heritage. (Click here to view a short video of Juanita and Marie speaking about the Right Path program.)


The Warriors of AniKituhwa Cherokee dance group.

The Warriors of AniKituhwa Cherokee dance group.

When I asked Marie Junaluska what she considers the most important thing about revitalizing the Cherokee language, she easily said, “Pride; heritage and identity; it tells us who we are. I realized this the most when I went to boarding school [not the hated Boarding Schools children were forced into but a BIA school she chose to attend at age 14]. Without that experience I wouldn’t have known the other tribes I got acquainted with, and the other languages I heard, like Sioux and Cheyenne.”


That was the time when she saw other native dress, traditional dress that the Cherokee had lost. There were long “pioneer” style dresses but these were not traditional; neither were the shirts with ribbons sewn on … these were borrowed.


As an adult, Marie began to research traditional dress and on a visit to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum near Lenoir, Tennessee she saw the way he and is daughter were dressed and realized that was more traditional than anything she’d seen so far. “She has on this outfit with a skirt, top, belt and moccasins. I said, ‘I want one of those!’ It’s a true picture of Cherokee dress. I showed a seamstress, she sketched it out, and made me two outfits. Moccasins were being made here already.”


Marie was preparing to attend the opening, in 2004, of the Museum of the American Indian within the Smithsonian and wanted to show her new outfit to Principal Chief Michelle Hicks and his wife Marsha. “I didn’t want to wear the Pioneer style of dress; I was always uncomfortable with it. Then, lo and behold, the seamstress had made a set for each of them!” So, all three attended the ceremonies in a revived Cherokee costume.


Not content to focus only on language and dress, Marie also was thinking about other aspects of culture. “In 2000 I was attending a conference in Hawaii about language and culture; I saw two guys in a dance coming face to face; I thought how beautiful, I was just awed. I’d read a bit about our Welcoming ceremony that we’d had here. When I got home I did more research and there it was. I carried the thought around for three years … kind of afraid: would they do it?”


The “they” was The Warriors of AniKituhwa, a Cherokee dance group, who have been making history by recreating Cherokee dances described in 1762, including the War Dance and the Eagle Tail dance. They are revitalizing Cherokee dance by bringing back other dances from the past, by doing research, and by offering dance workshops for their community. (To learn more, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian website.)


She eventually approached the dancers, and they were enthusiastic. “I brought it to the NAIWA [The North American Indian Women’s Association] and they agreed to support it.” As did the Tribal Council. “The Museum helped too with jewelry and costume. The guys were already making their own moccasins. Now they perform anywhere they are invited. Now little ones are learning. At inter-tribal council a guy played the colonel who [had] observed the historic dance … it’s not a welcoming ceremony but a warning of what would happen if they didn’t respect Cherokee lands.”


Respect. Pride. Cultural Identity. All watchwords that inspire and motivate Marie Junaluska to keep working to revive and strengthen the language, clothing, dance, music and more, of her people.



Sandi Tomlin-Sutker is the publisher and managing editor of WNC Woman Magazine.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker