Tsalagi Gawonihisdi (Cherokee Language) in the Garden and the Grocery

I knew from the get go that this project would not be easy. Walmart is a big company and I am but one young man on a mission. I began the project by identifying who my partners would be. I already knew that Running Strong and the Cherokee Nation Foundation would be my two strongest sources of support, information, and guidance; however, I needed to establish strong relationships with those who had the influence and ability to fully realize my dream. I immediately reached out to Liz Mashie-Gunsalis, the Tribal Voices Chair at Walmart. Liz and I began having conference calls discussing all the ins and outs of my dream.

First things first, we needed to translate the produce to the best of our ability. So I reached out to the Cherokee Nation Language Program to set up a meeting. I inevitably ended up meeting with Mr. Roy Boney Jr. and Mr. John Ross, both of whom are fluent Cherokee Speakers. We talked for a while about the project and eventually decided to set a date to tour the Tahlequah Walmart and translate produce.


The day came, and I had invited a couple friends to join, Skylar Vann and Trey Pritchett. The five of us began walking about the produce section and one-by-one, Mr. Ross, pointed at items and said the Cherokee word for that item. Roughly 20% of the time I knew the word. The rest of the time I was scribbling down as fast as I could in my notebook the word that Mr. Ross had said for each item in sequence. Here and there I had to clarify with questions like: “Was that a da or a ta?”, “Did you say Sv-ta for the red apple or the green one?”, “Is that a sound-a-like word?” It was fun and we laughed throughout. At one point, someone pointed to a shelf of oranges. Mr. Ross though for a moment and then with a smile said: “Orangie?” We all looked around at one another and laughed. Eventually we ran out of fruit to translate, said our goodbyes, and parted ways. For me however, there was still work to be done. When I got home I began transcribing the words I had scribbled in my notebook into an excel spreadsheet.

I have strived to be very purposeful in the transcription of the language and in turn the ways in which it will be displayed in the store. The goal here is to make the language accessible to all levels of Cherokee speakers and Cherokee Language learners. Let me break it down for you:

Community Level:

This individual may know a few words, many words, or be fluent in the language; but, may not know the phonetic transcription of the language and therefor will not be able to connect those words with the way they are written in Cherokee Phonetic. This speaker has heard the words but never learned to write them; thus the written phonetic can be confusing or altogether useless. For Example, the Cherokee word for boy, most folks I know would spell it chooge. However, in Cherokee Phonetic it would be spelled Tsu-Tsa. It is here that I believe a level of disconnect tends to occur.

Phonetic Level:

A second type of speaker is one who understands the sounds associated with the phonetic spelling of sounds and words; but does not know Cherokee Syllabary. They may know how to pronounce the Cherokee word for chicken when written in Cherokee Phonetic as Tsa-ta-ga or Tsa-ta-g; but they don’t know the Cherokee Syllabary characters associated with each sound. Ꮳ (Tsa) Ꮤ (Ta) Ꭶ (ga). This makes the phonetic useful to the individual in language learning and comprehension; but leaves the syllabary relatively useless.

Syllabary Level:

This individual knows both the phonetic spelling of words and sounds as well as the syllabary characters associated with each sound. This individual should be able to understand the language written in any of the above forms. This is the level of literacy and comprehension I – and I also believe Sequoyah – hoped to see the Cherokee People utilize on a daily basis when using the Cherokee language.
Accordingly, when utilizing the language on the Walmart store shelves I intend to display the language in all three forms: Community, Phonetic, and Syllabary. The intended end goal of this effort is to both allow individuals to comprehend at their level of understanding as well as allow individuals to connect the three forms together for a fuller understanding of the language in all of its written forms.

Author: Brian Barlow

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