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Language study as art: The Cherokee National Youth Choir

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - The Cherokee National Youth Choir, which just won the Native American Music Award for Best Gospel/Christian Recording, released their third album in December, the Christmas offering "Jesus is Born Today" (Cherokee Nation). The album was partially recorded at the historic Park Hill Presbyterian Church, the 170-plus year old sanctuary that the choir member's ancestors built. The choir has also performed at many prestigious venues across the country, including Ground Zero in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and with celebrities including Rita Coolidge and Dolly Parton.

The organization has also received Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government's "Honoring Nations" award as an exemplary tribal government program.

The choir, which performs traditional Cherokee songs in the Cherokee language, came into existence from an idea by Principal Chief Chad Smith, who saw it as a way to keep children involved in the Cherokee language and culture. "Chief Smith heard some children singing and he thought 'Why can't the Cherokee Nation have a choir?'" Kathy Sierra, the interim choir director, told Indian Country Today, "Chief Smith started the choir as a way to promote the Cherokee language and the culture. The children are learning the songs phonetically, but the main thing the chief wants to start is lessons before choir practice this year. He wants them to be taught the words so they know what they are singing; he wants it to be more educational." Sierra said that most of the members of the choir have a fluent speaker in their family, but were never taught the language. "The majority of the children come out of families where Cherokee is still being spoken somewhere."

Sierra, whose son is a choir member, noted that none of the children come out speaking fluent Cherokee, but they are learning words and phrases that they are passing on to their friends. "The ages, when the choir first started, was for sixth to ninth graders," Sierra said, "but they hated to lose the ones they had, so they changed it to go up to the twelfth grade. When new members come in they usually stay for the whole year. We have both boys and girls, but we can't get many boys to participate. All they ask from perspective members is to come in and sing, that's all they want to hear. Preferably they would rather hear you sing in Cherokee, but English is accepted too. We're looking for the ones with the voices. Last year when we auditioned there were 44 children, but before auditions this year we were down to 30 students."

While the schools do excuse the members to travel for their performances, Sierra said that they get no school credit for their work in the award-winning choir.

"Everyone loves them. Everyone loves their music and everyone wants a CD. In Cherokee, the only songs we have are gospel, but they are trying to get more out of the children's songs now, we even have a CD of that," Sierra Said. Another album is in the works, but it is so early in the process that the concept has yet to be decided. For more information, visit www.cherokeegiftshop.com.