The two recordings featured here constitute a dialogue across the decades between an anthropologist and a contemporary Cherokee elder. Frank G. Speck, who worked at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 40 years, made the first recording in 1935 with Will West Long, an elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) in North Carolina. In this recording, Long speaks in a high oratorical style, used on formal occasions, about the four phases of life—childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age.
The second clip, made in 2010, features Tom Belt (below), a Cherokee elder who is working actively within his community to preserve the Cherokee language and its cultural values. Here, Mr. Belt explains what the Speck recording means to him personally. As a fluent speaker who was raised on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and who now works with the EBCI in North Carolina, Mr. Belt is learned in both the Eastern and Western dialects of the Cherokee language.
To Tom Belt, who grew up listening to his grandmother speak in a similar oratorical style in Oklahoma, the older recording of a member of the Eastern band is remarkable for the similarities it evokes between the two forms of the Cherokee language, which were separated by the Trail of Tears in 1838, a historical tragedy that deeply divided the tribe. This recording, Tom Belt suggests, may help to heal these historical wounds by teaching young people that the Cherokee share cultural values deeply rooted in a shared language.
Frank Speck was a tireless ethnographic researcher, who chronicled the cultures of many tribes, from the Catawba in South Carolina to the Inuit of Labrador. The sound quality of Speck's recording is poor due to the degradation of the original phonograph disc on which it was recorded. And yet, now that the recording is available in digital form, new opportunities arise to share this valuable material with scholars and Cherokee communities.
The APS is working with Tom Belt to make this recording and others available to the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, a total immersion school dedicated to instilling the language and its embedded values to the youngest members of the community and to generations to come.
Selected collections with Cherokee audio recordings: