Legacy of Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling lives on in Cherokee-language programs, films, cartoon and more
A version of this story appears in Thursday's Life & Style section of The Oklahoman.
Lasting legacy: Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling remembered as tribe continues fight to preserve its language
From classrooms and cartoons to social media and movies, the fight to preserve the Cherokee Nation's language is continuing even after one of its revered commanders has left the battlefield.
The Tahlequah-based tribe's official Facebook page was full of the Cherokee language - both in its spoken form and in the written syllabary - on Tuesday, the same day funeral services took place for Durbin Feeling, who is renowned as the single largest contributor to the Cherokee language since the legendary Sequoyah.
"Durbin has made a language warriors out of a lot of people. He definitely has been our general," said Cherokee Nation Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden.
"It wasn't too long ago that it was illegal for us to speak our language and it was illegal for us to do our ceremonies. So, even now when we work with some ... people you have to come through and tell them, 'It's OK to speak it now.' ... When they first started losing it, there were so many people that you know that they spoke it, but they wouldn't speak it to you. For one thing, they went to boarding schools and were severely abused because of speaking it. ... So, it's taken quite a journey to get folks ready to get behind it."
A respected Cherokee linguist who wrote the Cherokee dictionary, developed hundreds of teaching materials and worked for the tribe since 1976, most recently in the tribe’s language translation and technology department, Feeling died Aug. 19. He was 74.
“Durbin Feeling was our modern-day Sequoyah, a Cherokee National Treasure who was the very first person chosen to sign our Cherokee Language Speaker’s Roll because he was so cherished by our first-language speakers and entire tribe. Everything we are doing for language revitalization is because of Durbin,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. in a statement.
Born April 2, 1946 just east of Locust Grove, Feeling first learned to speak in Cherokee; he didn't pick up English until he started first grade at Little Rock School in Mayes County. He learned to read and write the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah at age 12, and his passion for the language was inspired by his father, who would often sit in the shade reading aloud from songbooks or the New Testament.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran and ordained minister, Feeling's focus was preserving his Native language. He wrote or co-wrote at least a dozen books, added the Cherokee syllabary on a word processor in the 1980s and started the process to add it on Unicode, which makes it possible today for smartphones to offer the Cherokee syllabary.
In 2011, he was named a Cherokee National Treasure for his work to advance the Cherokee language, and he was the parade marshal at the Cherokee National Holiday in 2013.
"When you look at the language warriors he built and how his legacy is going to stay here, it's in the living people that he worked with and gave pieces of his heart to," Paden said.
With the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, Chief Hoskin last year named the Durbin Feeling Language Center in the linguist's honor. The language center will be built on the site of the tribe's old casino and consolidate the Cherokee Nation's three language programs - its translation office, immersion school and Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program - under one 50,000-square-foot roof, Paden said.
"When you work right beside one another, it will be beneficial and save a lot of time. It puts our resources together to put the big final push that we have to have in order to save our language," he said. "Durbin realized that there's something uniquely endowed to us by our creator to make Cherokees unique and that our creator has given us this language ... and without that we're really going to lose ground of any type of identity and the depths of who we are spiritually. ... That's what Durbin used his life to try to make sure that we don't lose."
Of the 385,000 registered Cherokees, only about 2,000 are Cherokee speakers, Paden said.
"So, it's less than a percent of them are Cherokee speakers, and the average age of a Cherokee speaker is around 67 right now. We are losing upwards of 100 per year," Paden said.
"There was a warrior spirit, warrior heart, that has to come into play, and Durbin worked on that for years and years and years and gave people the tools to wage this battle that we're going to have to have. And we're in the middle of it now - of not losing our language and holding fast to that."
A colorful children's cartoon and a sci-fi short film are among the weapons Cherokee director, writer and producer Jeremy Charles is honing in the fight Feeling championed to preserve the tribe's language.
"I'm one of many people who are just doing in their part - and definitely because of him. ... He's kind of a guiding post for a lot of people," said Charles, who owns FireThief Productions. "I'm a filmmaker, so I thought, 'If you can't hear yourself speaking on TV, if you can't see yourself on screen, you have nothing to identify with.' ... What I can do to help is create content in Cherokee for folks to view - because we need a lot of it. We just need a lot of people making animations, films, TV shows, news programming ... not only making it available but making it cool and making it something that people can really be proud of and identify with. That to me is what I can do to help with language preservation personally."
Although most of the festivities for this year's Cherokee National Holiday have moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Cherokee Nation Film Office is planning free Drive-in Movie Nights Sept. 3-5 at One Fire Field in Tahlequah. On Sept. 4, the lineup will include premieres of two of Charles' Cherokee-language projects: the short film “Totsu," or "Redbird," about an Indigenous woman who must confront a mysterious predator, and the pilot episode of “Inage’i,” which translates to “In The Woods,” an original animated children's series drawn from the tribe's storytelling traditions.
"That's become sort of my personal mission as a filmmaker. ... I want to help stimulate a whole ecosystem of people making content of all varieties," Charles said. "Young language learners need the most inspiration and are the most pivotal in picking it up and carrying it on. ... So, 'Inage'i' is not just a cartoon, but we kind of came at it like you would if you were Nickelodeon or PBS or a major studio because we wanted that quality."
In addition, the Sept. 3 drive-in event has been deemed "Cherokee Language Night," and the lineup will include the short documentary "Language Is Everything: The Story of Durbin Feeling," which Charles produced.
"He's revered around the tribe. When he walked in the room, it's like a celebrity because he's done so much to preserve the language. ... It was a privilege to get to know him a little bit," Charles said.
Cherokee Nation Film Office's Drive-in Movie Nights
When: Sept. 3-5.
Where: One Fire Field, Tahlequah.
Information and tickets: www.facebook.com/cherokeefilmoffice.
Watch online: To see the short documentary "Language Is Everything: The Story of Durbin Feeling" online, go to osiyo.tv/language-is-everything-the-story-of-durbin-feeling-cherokee-linguist.