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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (KFOR) – First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Tahlequah on Friday and learned about the Cherokee Nation’s historic efforts to preserve and perpetuate its native language.

Biden and Haaland, accompanied by First Daughter Ashley Biden, were guests of the Cherokee Immersion School in Tahlequah, where strides are being made to preserve the Cherokee language, according to a Cherokee Nation news release.

The First Lady and Interior Secretary joined third-grade Cherokee students for an immersion class that included reading, writing and speaking the Cherokee language. Students learn state-standard, grade-level curriculum entirely in the Cherokee language throughout the day, as part of the immersion curriculum.

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(L-R) Third-grade Cherokee Immersion School teacher Cindy Collins, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. listening to third-grade students Hunter Sanders, Henry Johnson and Riley Aimerson. Photo from the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee National Youth Choir also performed a Cherokee hymn, “Orphan Child,” for the First Lady and Haaland during the visit.

“As an English teacher, I have always believed that language is not just a collection of words. Language has the power to create, defining the shades of our joy and sorrow, dividing what matters from the mundane. It helps us tell the story of our culture and traditions — containing the wisdom of the world that only we know. It connects us to our faith, naming the divine and our relationship with it. It is a thread weaving through the past, present, and future — the inheritance of our ancestors and a gift we give to our children. The ability to speak our own truth in our own words is power,” said First Lady Biden.

The First Lady, First Daughter and the Interior Secretary made the trip to Tahlequah a little over two weeks after the First Lady unveiled the White House Native Language Memorandum of Agreement during the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit, which was the first gathering of tribal leaders since 2016.

The summit was held to connect the Biden Administration with tribal leaders across the country in a nation-to-nation setting, the news release states.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., a panelist during the summit, encouraged the Biden Administration to continue having robust discussions with Tribal Nations on the critical issues, policy initiatives and goals that impact Indian Country.

“I want to thank First Lady Dr. Biden and Secretary Haaland for visiting the Cherokee Nation Reservation and seeing first-hand how our Cherokee Language Department is not just preserving our precious Cherokee language, but finding innovative ways to perpetuate it so that it remains the lifeblood of Cherokee culture for generations to come,” Hoskin said. “The Cherokee Nation remains committed to preserving our language because we know it is at the heart of our identity. Friday’s visit by First Lady Biden and Secretary Haaland provided us an opportunity to discuss how critical it is that the Cherokee Nation and tribal nations across the country receive the resources and support we need to act swiftly and decisively to save our unique languages, which are cultural treasures.”

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(L-R) Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., Deputy Chief Bryan Warner, Cherokee Language Department Executive Director Howard Paden discuss Cherokee Nation’s historic prioritization of language preservation and perpetuation. Photo from the Cherokee Nation.

Cherokee leaders spoke with the First Lady during the visit about the Cherokee Nation Durbin Feeling Language Act, which Hoskin signed in 2019, investing $16 million toward preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language.

The Act, named in honor of the late Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling, the greatest contributor to the Cherokee language since Sequoyah, enabled the tribe to build a new state-of-the-art language hub to house all Cherokee language programs in one facility, the news release states.

The Biden Administration is committing $220 million to tribal nations around the country to help protect and preserve their native languages.

“It’s amazing to be at the Cherokee Immersion School with our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to highlight an issue that is close to my heart,” Haaland said. “Our indigenous languages are an important part of our culture and who we are as a people. Our languages connect us to our ancestors and to our homelands and help us share indigenous knowledge from generation to generation. Many of our languages are at risk from being lost. That’s why Native language preservation is so important and we are taking action.”

The First Lady is a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College. Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.