Chris Teuton’s love for stories goes back as far as he can remember. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation—the largest Native American nation in the United States with a population of about 350,000—he recalls as a young man hearing stories and teachings told by his elders in English. But he also recalls hearing many stories in the Cherokee language. Like most citizens of his age and younger, however, Teuton did not grow up learning the Cherokee language. A student by nature, Teuton is now chair of the University of Washington’s Department of American Indian Studies and is working to perpetuate his nation’s heritage language.
“The Cherokee language is labeled endangered by the United Nations,” says Teuton. “Our best estimates indicate there are only about 2000 fluent speakers in Oklahoma. We are in a really challenging time for the Cherokee language.”
On the heels of his book Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club—a collection of stories published in 2012 that captured conversations and teachings of traditional knowledge keepers and storytellers—he was approached by an elder’s widow that had even more material to share. They set up a meeting, and she arrived with grocery bags filled with hand-bound volumes of books, each written and compiled by her late husband. The titles derived from the natural world—Fish, Amphibians, Trees, Reptiles—and the volumes turned out to be the largest collection of Cherokee names and stories relating to the natural world in existence.
“Collectively they present a portrait of an enstoried natural world and the value system that undergirds that world,“ says Teuton. “Sky world, our world and the underworld. My elder, Hastings Shade, was articulating a value system he called ‘standing in the middle,’ a traditional way of finding a sense of relationship with all creatures to create peace, balance, and health in our lives.”
Teuton got to work making sense of the volumes, continuing to learn the language, conducting interviews and working with elders to figure out how the pieces all fit together. “It was a tall order understanding how best to share this knowledge.”
That’s where the Whiteley Center comes in. With a family and the daily demands of being a professor, Teuton needed a quiet place to organize his thoughts and work on this project. He found ideal working conditions at the Center, travelling there alone to devote his time to writing and reviewing his recorded interviews. “I learn from elders through our conversations; I really just listen and let it flow. I love how the Center gives scholars the space to do their work.”
One of the attributes of the Center that surprised Teuton was the lack of required meetings. “Other centers have mandatory meetings for scholars to share their work, but the Whiteley Center’s flexibility is terrific,” he says. “It gives me the freedom to devote the time I need to get the book done. After my first visit, I was so productive that I decided to see when I could come again. I appreciated the fact that I could go for two days or I could go for longer.”
Teuton completed a draft his book over the summer of 2020 and it is currently under review by the UW Press where it will be published. His excitement for the collection is palpable. “People needed English to survive, but Cherokees deeply value our heritage language. This book, which is currently titled ‘Cherokee Earth Dwellers,’ will be richly illustrated by Cherokee artists. It will function as a source of stories and teachings, as well as a usable reference. There’s a relationship between the loss of heritage languages and loss of biodiversity worldwide. When we have names, stories, and teachings about the creatures with which we share life, we value them more deeply.”
Learn more about Chris Teuton’s work on his UW webpage, including his book Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club.
Return to the Whiteley Center webpage.