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Revitalizing the Catawba language

2017 Running Strong for American Indian Youth® DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren (Catawba) is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project where he facilitates the Catawba Language Project “with the long-term goal of revitalizing our language.

“For us the means raising the first generation of young Catawba speakers since the late 1800s and making Catawba fluency available to the entire Catawba community,” says Roo.

To help Roo and the Catwaba Language Project reach their important goal, thanks to the supporters of Running Strong, we were able to provide the organization with a grant for $25,000 to help them “reach our goal of a vibrant and living Catawba language” by developing lesson plans, curricula and even publish a Catawba dictionary.

“In turn, these essential tools will allow us to train teachers, conduct classes and workshops, and continuing developing material such as signs, books, toys and more,” he said.

In addition, they have secured a contract with a distinguished linguist to assist their language working group as they develop these tools.

He reported that they are now under the umbrella of our tribal government which has provided many benefits, but “language funding remains a perennial issue.”

Among the things they hope to accomplish with the grant funding is to complete a language proficiency scale. “It is essential to have a way of measuring engagement and fluency that is rooted in Catawba values,” says Roo.

He noted that the Catawba Nation is a federally recognized tribe of 3,400 citizens in South Carolina and North Carolina where one-third of tribal members live on their reservation lands, and another third live on their traditional lands not far from the city of Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The Catawba Cultural Preservation Project was established in 1989 in the midst of the Catawba Nation’s fight for federal recognition.  Since its earliest days, the Cultural Center and the Catawba community have recognized the importance of the Catawba language. The majority of its staff and all of their cultural board are Catawba citizens. The Cultural Center is a division of the Catawba Nation since 2020.

“Childhood language acquisition is essential to revitalizing our languages,” Roo told us. “While work with adults remains important, it is the children who accept our language without judgment, with ease, and with playfulness.

“We are incredibly lucky because there is already so much enthusiasm for our language efforts, particularly in our childcare program.  We’ve begun developing songs that teach aspects of the Catawba language such as ‘The Number Song’ and ‘The Good Morning Song.’

“The children and teachers in our early childhood care center (Suuk Hinu) have taken to these songs quickly and in doing so have created a lot of enthusiasm amongst their parents and relatives.  Additionally, our language has really crucial lessons for our children, such as the Catawba idea of yemą, or family, which reassures us that our families are strong.”

For Roo, this project represents his coming full circle from his original Dreamstarter dream “to cultivate a vibrant Catawba language through modern technology to bring our voices back!”

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