Michael Marsland/Yale University
A letter written in Cherokee from the Kilpatrick Collection of Cherokee Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.

Keeping Language Alive: Cherokee Letters Being Translated for Yale

Cherokee Nation
September 27, 2013

Century-old journals, political messages and medicinal formulas handwritten in Cherokee and archived at Yale University are being translated for the first time.

The Cherokee Nation is among a small few, if not the only tribe, that has a language translation department who contracts with Apple, Microsoft, Google and Ivy League universities for Cherokee translation projects.

One of the tribe’s 13 translators, Durbin Feeling, is transcribing some 2,000 documents at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to catalogue and eventually make public.

The documents, spanning from the late 19th to mid-20th century, are from the collection of the late Jack and Anna Kilpatrick, Cherokee researchers.

“Native American communities have endured some of America’s most sustained forms of cultural oppression, and contemporary Indian nations, tribal members and supporters work tirelessly to reverse generations of assimilation-orientated designs. The work of linguists and language speakers in such efforts is particularly essential, especially in keeping alive and vibrant the languages of the first Americans,” said Ned Blackhawk, Yale professor of history and American studies, and advisory member at Yale’s Native American Cultural Center.

“The Cherokee Nation works at the leading edge of such linguistic activism. Their researchers and linguistic specialists have helped adapt 21st century technologies with their traditional culture and have developed among the most advanced pedagogical practices in the nation," he said.

The Cherokee Nation translation department is also currently working with museums in Oklahoma and finishing up its largest translation of 500,000 words for Microsoft.

“Our speakers are taking Cherokee history, in the form of our language, and preserving it for our future by incorporating our written alphabet into smart phones and computer language settings, making it possible for our youth to email entirely in Cherokee,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “They are one of our most valuable resources, not only passing on their wisdom to our Cherokee Immersion students learning to speak, but for our future who will know more about our lives and way of thinking, revealed in all these translated archived manuscripts.”

Feeling’s first language is Cherokee. He has a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of California, Irvine, and honorary doctorate from Ohio State.

He’s traveled across the U.S. and Germany sharing how to speak, read and write the 85-character Cherokee syllabary.

He’s also taught Cherokee language and culture at the University of Oklahoma and Northeastern State University.

“Universities and museums often have all these documents and nobody to read them, to tell them what they say,” Feeling said. “They’ll choose the ones they’re curious about and let me translate, which benefits us all.”