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Cherokee Promise Scholars maintain tribal traditions, preserve language at NSU

(Tahlequah, Okla.)—A group of Cherokee students at Northeastern State University are learning to maintain tribal traditions thanks to a scholarship program funded by the Cherokee Nation.

As Cherokee Promise Scholars, recipients learn fluency in Cherokee and participate in service learning projects which enhance campus life and the Tahlequah community.

“This cohort is what we call a living learning community,” said Dr. Les Hannah, associate professor of English and coordinator of NSU’s Cherokee language program. “They will live together and take Cherokee language and history courses together. They will take about two-thirds of their classes as cohorts.”

Cherokee Promise students live on the third floor of the Haskell Hall Annex at NSU, which is set aside for CPS recipients to facilitate Cherokee immersion. Students participate in cultural activities and specialized classes and speak Cherokee as often as practicable. The Cherokee Nation funded the renovation of the floor.

One purpose of the Cherokee Promise Scholarship is to provide financial assistance to Cherokee students pursuing higher education. The Cherokee Nation Education and Human Services groups have partnered to develop and administer the program. Dallas Pettigrew, director of the Nation’s Building Leaders, and Gregg Simmons, manager of the Cherokee Nation College Resource Center, were instrumental in the program’s design and implementation.

American Indians often face challenges when working toward college degrees. Financial issues are mitigated by the scholarship itself, but Cherokee Promise also addresses academic preparation and social structure.

Pettigrew said many programs already exist to facilitate tuition funding for American Indians, but such resources do not always keep them in school.

“What the Cherokee Promise Scholarship is designed to do is build a sense of community on campus for young people who may not get that any other way,” he said. “We want to build a ‘home-away-from-home’ so that the students feel comfortable on campus.”

Recipients must have a cumulative grade-point average of 2.7, participate in the tribal Self-Help Program and live on campus.

“By living in an immersive environment and pursuing similar academic goals, these students receive the support network they need to optimize their chances for success,” Hanna said

Hannah added that the presence of hundreds of Cherokees on campus does not guarantee an instant social life for new students – that it takes most people some time to make friends.

“This accelerates that process,” he said. “They know people in key places even before classes start. They know their peers. They have met with me, financial aid, First Year Experience – they know where to go and ask questions.”

The service learning projects also help establish social ties. The Promise Scholars initiated a litter cleanup August 25 spanning the area between Seminary Hall, Town Branch Creek, the west wall of Jack Dobbins Field House and the east wall of the Science building. The students also cleaned Beta Pond and Town Branch Creek between the Muskogee Avenue bridge and the Spring Street crossing.

“We will conduct that cleanup each month, and develop other projects during the academic year,” Hannah said. “When we were piloting the program in the spring, we did grounds-keeping and cleanup for the Murrell Home and the Cherokee Heritage Center. We also did work on the playground at Sequoyah Elementary. Our projects won’t be confined to Cherokee entities at all. We want to help the whole community.”

Hannah said a Cherokee immersion program in a higher learning environment facilitates understanding between traditional and modern sentiments.

“I am of Cherokee lineage, I came from a rural school and I teach at a university,” Hannah said. “I know these cultures can co-exist, but I think some issues need to be addressed to help them co-exist. There are many people at NSU and the Cherokee Nation working to make this happen.”

Cherokee Promise Scholars receive a $2,000 educational scholarship and a $1,000 housing scholarship per semester. The scholarships are funded by multiple sources, including the Cherokee Nation Foundation, Native American Housing and Self Determination Act and the CRC. Recipients must be Cherokee citizens, live within the nation’s jurisdiction and meet requirements for tuition and housing assistance.

“NSU is so happy to house this program here,” said Dr. Evelyn Woods, assistant dean of student affairs. “We are proud of their integration of Cherokee language into campus life and what they are doing is a model to follow for indigenous language conservation.”

The long-term goal of Cherokee Promise is to develop enough Cherokee fluency among certified educators to permit the establishment of a language component in all public schools within the nation’s 14-county jurisdictional area.

“I might not live to see that, but preserving the Cherokee culture will require an extensive investment of money and time,” Hannah said. “In the conservation of any cultural identity, language is extremely important. My mother is fluent, but I often got in trouble for speaking Cherokee in public schools. Now I and so many other people are doing what we can to put Cherokee in public schools for the benefit of Cherokee students.” 

Published: 9/15/2011 8:27:34 AM

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