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Marie Junaluska

I wasn’t sure you meant this coffee shop. I realized we have more than one now.” Marie laughs as we tuck ourselves into a booth in the back corner of Qualla Java. Though the two of us make up half the clientele, the shop is loud with the sputter of brewing coffee and rubber soles against a sweating concrete floor.

“I know. I thought the same thing.”

Much has changed in Cherokee, North Carolina, since the last time Marie Junaluska and I spoke, and this is an unusual place for us to meet. I’ve known Marie, a fluent Cherokee speaker, educator, tribal leader, and translator, my entire life. We never meet at coffee shops. We see each other at ball games, school functions, and tribal government events. She is the mother of one of my childhood friends, and she worked for my aunt Hazel beginning when Marie was fifteen years old. Unless it is a business meeting, locals rarely meet friends in coffee shops to chat. Of course, things do change.

“What used to be here?” I ask her as we settle in. Marie was born in 1950, so I am eager to get a glimpse into the world my parents’ generation knew. “Like when you were growing up. What did it look like?”

“There has always been a bridge here. Yes. Always a bridge.”

As she continues to piece together her memory of the place, we realize that what was once a part of her childhood life is now underground, blacktopped over—a concealed Cherokee we never think about. Tunnels, perhaps—like the ones on shows like Unearthed. We enjoy the mystery of it, but I can’t help but lament knowing I will never see it and wondering if we can ever access it again.

This is Marie’s role, though. As a translator, she makes visible the invisible. She connects memory to a new reality. She is motivated by her own desire to see and know more.

Marie has been speaking Cherokee her entire life. Her mother spoke nothing but Cherokee to her and her siblings. That is not to say that she has been a student of the language in the way we prepare our current generation to be. She grew up immersed in oral Cherokee. Written Cherokee, the syllabic system developed by Sequoyah by the 1820s, was not accessible to her as a child. I assume I know the reason. Other than the Bible, books in area homes were not typical when Marie was growing up, regardless of whether it was a Cherokee home or not. I, as is often the case, am wrong about that reason, though. Marie clarifies, “When the Cherokee capital was moved from New Echota to Red Clay, the printing press was destroyed by the Georgia Guard. Everything was destroyed. I think material stopped being printed at that time. I think the material available at that time was put on a shelf. . . . Those that knew how to speak it taught us. Then as far as the schools here, we were not teaching it at all until the 1970s.”

I have heard most of my life that Cherokee language was nearly eradicated because of boarding schools and often forget the impact of other federal assimilation policies and practices. An act so simple as the burning of a printing press over a hundred years ago still influences language education today. The language only survives because of people like Marie and her family. Language was, and largely still is, carried in the minds and mouths of Cherokee people and rarely in the books and papers of dusty archives. It has to live, to survive. People like Marie give it the heartbeat to do so.

Marie’s mother only taught her two characters of the syllabary—the characters for Jesus: tsi sa. Those two characters continue to fascinate her, as if there is a key to a secret door; the language, fully realized, is that key.

While attending day school in Wolftown, North Carolina, Marie was taught by her only Cherokee teacher, Oscar Welch, in the fifth grade. For the remainder of her formal education, Marie doesn’t recall having another Cherokee instructor. It’s not a fact that seems odd to her. “I never really thought of it,” she tells me. As the only Cherokee faculty member on staff at my local high school, it is something that troubles me, though. I am concerned more by how few Cherokee language teachers we have in our community who have both the skills of language proficiency and teaching methods. These are rare individuals.

Like many of her peers, Marie left home after eighth grade and attended Riverside Boarding School in Oklahoma. Stories of boarding schools in Indian Country range from transformative to tragic. For Marie, Riverside emboldened her commitment to language and culture. Ironically, being farther from home gave her perspective to appreciate the uniqueness of Cherokee culture and her gift of language. She could speak with other Cherokees and instantly return home or share her distinctive gift and discover an allusive appreciation from strangers. I watch her smile as she recounts her days at Riverside. Her memories call her attention back, and her face seems to grow more youthful in the retelling. She knows I understand what it is like to go away in order to discover home.

At Riverside she also recognized her role in a larger Native community. “It made me so proud that I could speak our language and I could hear the others speak their language. I thought, wow, we have our own too, and so we would proudly speak it,” she recalls. “It’s what really opened me up to our culture, our customs. Taking me away from here and seeing. Today, I am so thankful. It was a very meaningful . . . just a rewarding experience for me to go away from here . . . and get to know all these other Natives from different states. . . . Otherwise, I would have kept thinking we were the only Indians out here.”

When Marie returned to North Carolina, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Marie’s Oklahoma experience exposed her to new possibilities to put both her knowledge and her approach to teaching to use. Cherokee Central Schools received a grant to teach the language, and Marie applied to work with the program, primarily because it gave her the opportunity to both teach the language and learn the syllabary in the process. “It was typical that most people did not have experience with the syllabary. I think it’s been dormant,” she recalls. Through this teaching opportunity, she could pursue the key she had only glimpsed as a child in those two syllabary characters her mother taught her. “I had no idea how to read and write,” she remembers. “But I was ready. I was excited.”

As I sit across from Marie, I already know the timeline of her career. Marie was a Cherokee Tribal Council member for most of my life, so I try to imagine her as a young teacher and it is hard for me to visualize how one makes the jump into a political life. Cherokee politics are notoriously contentious. Marie is soft-spoken. I have never heard her raise her voice. I am quite sure I have never seen her frown. She is reflective and kind as she talks. Mind you, not in that stereotypical wise-sage way that is likely expected by the tourists sipping lattes in the next booth over. We joke about her encounters with other tribes while in Oklahoma and politics in Cherokee, but she is never mean-spirited. Her gentle demeanor comes from a place of wisdom and insight, not indifference or witlessness.

“I was pregnant when your grandmother, serving on council at the time, came to me and asked if I would work as the interpreter for tribal council. It kind of floored me. It was kind of scary. But I thought maybe I could do it because I could speak.” Two months after giving birth to her first child, Marie began her career as an official interpreter for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. She worked with mentors such as Beloved Woman Maggie Wachacha, whom she calls “jolly,” and quickly learned the art of translating English legal documents to the Cherokee syllabary. Her work is one of sovereignty. As legal professionals do, Marie interprets law and its intent—and that is just the first step. She is the bridge between our wishes to self-govern and nation-build, and the implementation of these wishes.

“Why did you decide to run for council?” I am always fascinated by this question. Marie is a council member who served prior to and after the gaming industry came to the Eastern Band. Therefore, she has seen incredible transitions and, perhaps, motivations of our people.

“It was the peoples’ thought. Not mine. I never even thought about running or being a council member. One day I was in Painttown for a Community Club meeting and I thought, well here I am. I am living here and have kids. I should be down there and see what’s going on. I just started attending sessions, and the next thing I know, they asked me if I would consider running for council. And I thought, Oh, No! No!” We laugh together. I immediately said no and that person asked me again. And I said maybe the next term. But the next term didn’t happen. They went ahead and put my name down.”

And this is where my age shows. Marie is telling me that she never signed up to run for office. She did not choose to run. She did not name herself a leader. She smiles at my surprise. She knows I am used to modern Cherokee politics, where so many candidates are self-ascribed leaders, not put forward in the traditional way of community call to action.

“So I went ahead. When I look back, it makes me feel good that the community did this. So I have looked up to the community since,” she explains.

When days got tough, and they often do in tribal council, Marie refocused herself at the source—she returned to the old homeplace to talk with her mother. She returned to peace and simplicity and a single, native language. “Whenever we were having council and we would cover so much . . . at the end of the day . . . I would go home. I mean home where I was raised. I found that it was calming. It was like coming back down to earth. It was like slowing down. We would speak Cherokee and talk about what went on. It was a calming time—get my senses back. Language is more peaceful in the Cherokee language than it is in English.” Until her passing, Marie’s mother and her old homeplace served as a conduit to the peace of the language. She still goes back to the old homeplace, and of course, she plays with her eight grandchildren when her world needs more peace.

As a writer and English teacher, it goes without saying that I am fascinated with words. While I am nowhere near fluent, I enjoy learning from our Cherokee speakers and especially discussing difficult words to translate. Translation, after all, is about worldview, and quite often English and Cherokee worldviews collide. So, I was curious to ask Marie if there were any words that she had difficulty translating from Cherokee to English—that she felt like just never really rendered fully. She thought for a while. As a woman who adeptly translates legal terminology, Marie is rarely tripped up by new words and effectively uses the resources of the Language Consortium (comprised of speakers from all three Cherokee nations) to decode any tricky terms. “To-hi” (pronounced tow he), she finally answers. “Yes, probably that word.” The basic translation of this word is peace, but of course, it is more than that. It is a lifestyle perspective of peace—a complete peace that requires mind, body, and spirit to be aligned. It is why Marie calls the language “peaceful.” It is why so many Cherokee-speaking mothers swear that correcting a child in the Cherokee language is far more effective than the same command given in English. It is a peaceful approach that is not weak or passive. To-hi is an active, all-inclusive peace.

I almost hesitate to ask Marie the question I know she and other Cherokee speakers always get: “What is the future of the language?” Within that question is imbedded a connotation that it is endangered, some would even say dying. Anthropologists, linguists, and documentarians have trickled in and out of these mountains for decades fascinated with the possibility of standing in the moment, in the place, of an actual extinction. Sometimes it is as if they want to be among the last to witness it. Sometimes they want to posit a plea for rescue. Never have there been any easy answers to insuring the survival of the Cherokee language.

Marie is ready for it. She is adamant and sits up in the booth, resting her coffee on the table. “Will we save the language? Absolutely! I will not say it is dying. I resent that statement. It is not a true statement. The [Kituwah Language] Academy has done so much. It’s already beginning to live. I feel confident that it is going to live on.” When I ask her if she has any other language goals to accomplish in this lifetime, she speaks of her days of coming into the language. “I want the children to be able to read the Bible. That will be the ultimate,” she relays. Marie’s goal is both from a spiritual standpoint and the recognition that the Holy Bible is the most comprehensive collection of translated Cherokee vocabulary available. I think this confuses outsiders sometimes — the reliance of Christianity for Cherokee cultural perseverance. However, the text is intended to convey peace, capturing the connotation of the language more accurately than any other translated work of literature.

I joke, “To be able to write Jesus in the syllabary, right?” She laughs but expresses her wish that she could spend more time teaching her grandchildren the way her mother taught her.

“So after traveling and enjoying your time learning from others so much, what is it about this place? I mean, of course, outside this coffee shop. Why return and stay here?” I ask.

“What is it about this place? Well, this is the land. Where our ancestors were. Where I was born. This is home. We are totally blessed to live in a place like this. There is no other place like it,” she speaks as if the answer is obvious, which I personally think it is.

After our meeting, Marie sent me an email. She had forgotten to mention a project very important to her, one that I was familiar with: the Right Path Leadership program. The Right Path, Du-yu dv-i, “program provides unique leadership learning that tailors contemporary leadership development competencies from the wisdom of Cherokee ancestral cultural leadership.” Essentially, it translates Cherokee leadership values into modern practice. Marie’s translation talents are not related to words and phrases. Translating Cherokee and English is about moving forward in the Cherokee way. It is sovereignty and cultural vitality. It is the essence of a thriving culture—change without sacrificing core values and worldview.

Marie reminds us, “When the language goes, our culture will go with it because it is all entwined.” I am leaving the coffee shop with a sense of peace, though. Marie is responsible for this to-hi. She embodies it, and her life’s work takes an active responsibility for ensuring that our history, culture, and worldview translates into the future.

There’s always been a bridge here, and if Marie Junaluska has anything to say about it, there always will be.


This essay first appeared in Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia (Blair, 2019).