Cherokee Nation Uses Covid Vaccine to Preserve Language

As the United States has begun distributing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against Covid-19, communities across the country have grappled with fairly and effectively administering the vaccine to vulnerable sectors of the population.

For the Cherokee Nation in eastern Oklahoma, the Covid-19 vaccines aren’t merely a means of beating the virus. As the community works out the intricacies of vaccine distribution, fluent speakers of the Cherokee language are prioritized to receive the vaccine, in order to help preserve the language and culture, according to an article in Tulsa World.

In August 2020, the CDC released a report that noted that Native Americans were one of the racial and ethnic minority groups at highest risk from Covid-19, due to racial inequities which have historically led to disparate socioeconomic factors and health outcomes within their communities. As of December 2020, at least 20 fluent speakers of Cherokee had died after contracting the virus, as Tulsa World reported.

“We wanted to get some of our Cherokee elders and speakers, people that know the language, in on [the vaccine],” Tim King, a fluent Cherokee speaker and teacher, told Tulsa World in December.

Out of nearly 400,000 Cherokee, only about 2,500 speak the language fluently, and that number has been in decline—in 2019, Cherokee leaders declared the language’s decline a state of emergency and announced efforts at revitalizing the language.

The majority of fluent Cherokee speakers are older than 70, and as a result, many are at even more risk from the pandemic. According to National Public Radio, vaccines are being given primarily to elderly individuals and healthcare workers during the first phase of distribution, however they’re also being given to fluent speakers of the language in order to quell any further linguistic decline caused by the pandemic. At least 600 Cherokee speakers have received the vaccine so far.

“I think it’s important that we take care of our speakers, because once we’re gone we won’t have the same language,” John Ross, a Cherokee translator, said to Tulsa World. “It’s going to be different. The language is evolving, and when all of us first-language speakers are gone, it’s going to be gone.”


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