Goal of Respond, Recover and Rebuild projects: Make Cherokee communities stronger; meet emergency needs of Cherokee families

Our communities are the foundation of our great tribal nation; together, will emerge even stronger post COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected the Cherokee Nation, just as it has impacted the rest of the world. However, Cherokee Nation is actively responding in ways that make our tribal government stronger. We are making investments that address the immediate safety and economic needs of Cherokee families and communities during this crisis. We provided a series of Respond, Recover and Rebuild grant opportunities for Cherokee Community Organizations (“CCO”), and other non-profit partners across the reservation in order to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. We invested in expanding broadband connectivity across the Cherokee Nation reservation, and we have grown our abilities to help survivors of domestic violence. Another group that has struggled during this pandemic are the community-based organizations that impact Cherokee Nation at the grassroots. Many of them have worked tirelessly to help Cherokee citizens struggling with the impact of COVID-19. To make sure they can keep providing those services and make it through this difficult time, we reinvested about $3.5 million in federal CARES Act dollars.

Through our Community and Cultural Outreach department, more than 50 Cherokee community organizations across the Cherokee Nation reservation, as well as two dozen more at-large Cherokee organizations across the United States, had access to grant dollars. They were used to offset operating costs impacted by the pandemic, including utility bills, PPE, and equipment to make Cherokee community facilities as safe as possible. Additionally, capital improvement grants were set aside for modifying buildings. CCO organizations in places such as Hulbert and Washington County were able to expand food pantries and install refrigeration and freezer storage to help with emergency food outreach. The Cherokee Nation also invested $1.3 million in COVID-19 relief funds to provide necessary water and sewer line upgrades to communities throughout the reservation. Some of these projects include an expansion at the Stilwell Wastewater Treatment Plant, a well pump generator in Kenwood to improvements to the wastewater system in Warner. The Cherokee Nation fully supports its communities with clean and safe water conditions.

We continue to meet the immediate emergency needs, and that will pay huge dividends for a more secure future for the Cherokee people.

Protecting the language

Cherokee speakers among the most vulnerable to COVID-19’s impact

Across the Cherokee Nation reservation, COVID-19 has created unprecedented health and family crises during the pandemic, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the community level where Cherokee elders who serve as community knowledge keepers are at serious risk from the effects of the virus.

Before COVID-19 reached the Cherokee Nation reservation in the spring of 2020, the Cherokee Nation had only about 2,000 fluent speakers, their average age being 67. Cherokee Nation Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden estimates the tribe loses about 100 speakers a year, but since the pandemic, more than 35 first-language Cherokee speakers were lost to COVID-19 alone. Among many of their families, the virus impacted the entire household.

“With the global pandemic, there has been added stress to the health systems, so sometimes doctor appointments and other procedures have had to be postponed and canceled,” Paden said. “We know the speakers miss our community events, including the monthly Cherokee speakers bureau luncheons. But we are trying to be as safe with our cultural resources and our invaluable language bearers as we possibly can.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has made elder protection a critical aspect of the Respond, Recover and Rebuild spending plan. Federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars have boosted the tribal government’s ability to directly help elders in need. An infusion of funding for elder aid, such as help with utilities and ready-made meals, has had a significant impact across communities in the Cherokee Nation.

“At Cherokee Nation, putting elders first is simply our way of life. Our elders are precious, and they deserve our respect. They are the reason we still have a thriving Cherokee Nation, so anything we can do for our elders, for our traditional speakers, we will,” said Chief Hoskin. “My family and the entire Cherokee Nation have been devastated by this unforgiving COVID virus. We have lost far too many wonderful citizens, all of them taken from us too soon.”

Roy Boney, program manager for the Cherokee Language Department, is thankful that the tribe’s response efforts have alleviated household financial stresses through elder relief funding.

“We have continued operating as best as we can. All of our first-language speakers on staff have been working remotely. Despite that, we have kept operations going. Some things have slowed down a bit, such as translation requests, but we still fulfill them,” Boney said. “Our community classes have been redirected to the online courses, which we expanded to account for the lack of in-person classes. Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program students continue via online Zoom sessions, and the Immersion school has focused on online instruction as well.”

“The Cherokee language is at the heart of the Cherokee Nation and our Cherokee speakers are such pillars of our communities, so we must continue to do everything within our abilities to protect them and help them recover from this virus, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations,” Deputy Chief Warner said. “That’s why we continue to encourage everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing, and to follow the recommendations of our health care experts, who rely on medical science and facts to guide us forward in the aftermath of COVID-19.”

In response to the virus, the Cherokee Nation translation team has translated a variety of public service announcements about how to practice social distancing and handwashing.

“The terminology has always existed. For example, back during the Spanish flu during 1917-18, there were tracts published in Cherokee to inform our population about pandemic best practices,” Boney said. “So, we are doing that again, but this time we do have the power of technology on our side to help spread the word. And as long as COVID is around, people can always take advantage of the language content we have online at language.cherokee.org and our online courses at learn.cherokee.org.”