Whenever the members of a community speak about their landscape – whenever they name it, or classify it, or tell stories about it – they unthinkingly represent it in ways that are compatible with shared understandings of how, in the fullest sense, they know themselves to occupy it.
Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness of the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Yet all we really know is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove he really lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal, and so he too had to be found in a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes a quite different castle for us.
Having mapped a few Cherokee place names myself, I wasn’t about to miss the recent program in the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series in Highlands.
At last week’s session, Heidi Altman and Tom Belt spoke on “Cherokee Ways of Naming Places. ” Heidi Altman is a linguistic anthropologist and an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University. In addition to teaching at Georgia Southern, she works with Cherokee speakers in North Carolina and Oklahoma to revitalize and renew their language. Tom Belt (Oklahoma Cherokee) is the community coordinator and language instructor for Western Carolina University's Cherokee Language Program. He is a native speaker of Cherokee and, although from Oklahoma, he has lived in the North Carolina Cherokee communities for almost 20 years.
Heidi Altman commented on what makes Cherokee an unusual language:
It is an Iroquoian language surrounded by Muskogean and Siouan languages. The other Iroquoiain languages are in the Northeast and Cherokee has been separated from them for 3500 years or so.
The level of complexity in the language is beyond what you would expect in almost any language. It has all the complicating features that you look at when you classify languages according to levels of complexity.
Every syllable is packed with information and meaning. You can line up these syllables and have words that are extremely long and have the meaning of a paragraph in English. They tell you everything.
This [complexity] has been the greatest challenge for me as a linguist...and in terms of language revitalization, this is one of the greatest challenges in teaching the language. Some people estimate that you can conjugate any Cherokee verb up to 20,000 different ways.
In and of itself it’s special and unique linguistically.
In and of itself it’s special and unique historically.
And in and of itself it’s special and unique because of the worldview that goes along with it.
Tom Belt explained why the study of Cherokee place names is important:
It wasn’t just a name, like “the big stone place” or “the big tree place.” If it had a name, then there was a deeper story and a deeper meaning. We gave it a name to indicate its importance both in our cosmology and in our social life, with an understanding of how things are supposed to be in the natural sense.
We might embellish them a little bit to give the idea of its importance. For example, a stream that is completely inundated with the turtles doesn’t exist. But it tells you how important the turtle was and it tells you how important the stream was. [It is believed that Tuckasegee, or Daksi-gi, means “inundated with turtles.”]
The Tuckaseegee corridor - from the top of Toxaway all the way to its confluence with the Little Tennessee – that whole area is a very, very old sacred site and the turtle is one of our most important and sacred icons. So it’s not just that we’re making a comment that there are lots of turtles there. There’s a deeper and more profound meaning.
That’s why these names are important. That’s why these places need to be looked at. They need to be noted. They need to be saved.
There was a time just 170 years ago when people in our tribe had the names of every plant that grows in these mountains, and this is the most biologically diverse place on the face of the North American continent. Our people lived here for thousands of years and they lived with these things. These things were important. You would be very careful about how you named places, because the names of these places are keys to knowledge and wisdom. It’s a key, at this point, to revitalizing the language and also a key to understanding our environment a little better. It’s not just a funny sounding eight syllable word.
For example, the word Cullasaja was our word for honey locust tree. Later on, because of that, it became our word for sugar. But if you know that, you automatically know that, at some point or another, there were great groves of honey locust trees along the Cullasaja basin.
When you say the words and know what they mean, it puts you in touch with the place and you understand it better. The words indicate a balance in the world – a balance in the way things are supposed to be. And we’ve forgotten that.
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