When it comes to the study of cultures, language and stories might be considered “keys to the kingdom.”  Elders who are native speakers of the Cherokee language, along with young students/teachers from the Cherokee Nation, share some of their wisdom with us in the documentary film ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak). Filmmakers, Schon Duncan and Michael McDermit created a beautiful, must-see film that will impress anyone interested in the Cherokee people, their culture, and, most importantly, their language. ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak) has been made available to North Carolinians for viewing online from October 16-30.

From the start of the film, I was drawn to the simplicity and authenticity. The speakers are Native people, some of them for whom the Cherokee language was their first language. The intent of the filmmakers, it seems, is to relay the sense of urgency for teaching and preserving the language through an intensive effort by many. Most of those individuals consider themselves student/teachers, young folks who have gone through training to pass along a language that is quickly dying along with their elders. The Cherokee Nation has an ambitious goal: to insure that in fifty years, 80% of the Cherokee members will be fluent. The elders are less concerned, however. They have been raised to think ahead to the next seven generations. No need to be in a hurry. Perhaps their wisdom will prevail.

The young people who are involved are taking the responsibility of preserving their culture with zeal and creativity. Keli Gonzales, for example, is a visual artist who is sharing the language through mural painting. And Carolyn Swepston, who took up basket-making for her second career, teaches language through gardening and outdoor games. There is a dark underbelly to this effort, however.

Do you remember the fifteen-minute lesson on the Cherokee people from your American History class? Viewers of this film are reminded that the American school curriculum is so lacking on the subject. Swepston’s road trip from Oklahoma to North Carolina is a remarkable journey. Her pilgrimage along the Trail of Tears was not only meaningful to her but also for those of us who watched the scenery go by; a trip along I-40 to Oklahoma will never be the same. How can we understand the greater world if we have not looked in our own backyard? I am equally grateful to have heard the voices of people like Betty Fragg, who attended a boarding school and who shared her experiences growing up. Denying children their native language was such a cruel way to “civilize” them. Despite the haunting memories, Betty and others will no doubt make a lasting impression. And perhaps more of us will benefit from their compassion, something the world has in short supply.

ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak) is an artistic accomplishment in nearly every way: the people, the landscapes, the children (oh, yes, the children), the stories, and the outdoor barbeques that made my mouth water. The music, however, was sometimes a bit too “present,” like the formulaic Baptist musicals. I did like the outdoor music-makers, a heartfelt salute to the genuine musicians. And importantly, I loved the subtle use of a single flame, a lovely visual emblem. Be sure to see this lovely film.

This will be available for view until October 30. See our sidebar for details.