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Stacie Boston
Cherokee Phoenix

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – In 2018, an idea began to take root after two non-Native filmmakers, Jacob Koestler and Michael McDermit of Blurry Pictures, came to Oklahoma and showed an interest in the Cherokee language.

One of the people they spoke with was Schon Duncan (ᎤᎶᎩᎳ), a United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians member, about his efforts in preserving as well as growing the language.

What they worked on would later become known as “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak),” a feature-length documentary detailing the efforts of those working to preserve the Cherokee language through activism, art and education.

“I see a lot of stuff made for the language, but it’s made from an outsider perspective,” Duncan, co-director of the film, said. “I wanted something that was an intimate narrative of not only people who are doing the work to save the language, but I thought it would be really cool to also show the backbone of the language, which is our speakers.”

Duncan said the film has a core focus on him as a language activist and Cherokee language educator at Dahlonegah Public School in Adair County; on Cherokee Nation citizen Carolyn Swepston (Ꮒ Ꭶ Ꮻ), and her work as a Cherokee language educator; and Cherokee Nation citizen Keli Gonzales (ᎨᎳᏗ), an artist who incorporates the Cherokee language into her work.

“It’s really about how we have been propped up by speakers and propped up by the people who love this language around us to do the work that we do today,” he said.

(Related: Cherokee filmmaker debuts tale of survival)

Gonzales, a producer on the documentary, is one of the various Cherokee artists featured. Aside from putting a spotlight on her art, she and her family are also featured.

“I ended up being in it because my family and … because my artwork is very language-based,” she said. “Both sets of my grandparents are speakers. I don’t know the language. My sister is in the (CN’s Cherokee Language Master/Apprentice Program).”

“ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” is set to release in early 2023. (Courtesy of Blurry Pictures)

As for Duncan’s part, he said he wanted to put a spotlight on UKB speakers.

I feel like my tribe doesn’t get talked about a lot,” he said. “So, I really wanted to push people from my tribe who maybe don’t feel the support. Like, ‘I love the work that you’re doing. I want you to be memorialized.’”

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For a portion of Swepston’s part, Duncan said she provided an intimate look into a trip she took with her family to North Carolina.

“It’s just like almost intimate diaries of her thoughts. And like, ‘I’ve grown up in Oklahoma. I’ve never been to North Carolina, but this is where my people are from.’ And just seeing her process that on camera,” he said. “Some people would be really scared to do that. But she … gave it to us and said, ‘hey, let’s make this into something.’ I think she’s incredibly brave to do that.”

When going through the film, Duncan said they tried to “keep as much language in it as possible.” To do this, he added, he had to translate the Cherokee to make English captions.

“That work is worth it. People can see the language in its true and natural form,” he said. “We wanted people to see not only people like me or Keli or Carolyn struggling to get to a place of knowing, but we also want people to see it’s still alive. There’s still elders who are out there sharing it in their community. We wanted to show a living language.”

Duncan said with the film he wants to make sure Cherokee speakers feel valued.

“My grandpa didn’t want to teach people Cherokee because he knew the hardships that came with people who spoke it,” he said. “To see me now being able to put the language on a pedestal and the people who speak it on a pedestal and say, ‘you're valued, you’re worth it, you’re everything that every Cherokee should want to be.’ That’s all I want is people to see a real Cherokee speaker and say, ‘that’s a Cherokee.’ That’s what we all should strive to be.”

The efforts behind “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” was officially brought to the forefront on Sept. 13, when a Kickstarter – a website that helps crowdfund creator’s projects – was launched to help fund the post-production efforts of the film. Just three days later, the project was fully funded.

“That’s amazing. That’s been the coolest part,” Gonzales said. “It’s community made. The community is supporting it and that’s who it’s for.”

Duncan echoed Gonzales’ sentiment and added that the Kickstarter project is open until Oct. 13.

“We reached our goal so we’re super excited, but we’re looking for ways to incentivize more giving because … there’s so much more we can do,” he said, adding that $10,000 was the “bare minimum” of what it was going to take. “I don’t want to be too greedy; I just think it could be so much more than we ever dreamed.”

“ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” is set to release in early 2023.

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This article was first published in the Cherokee Phoenix.