JANUARY 21, 2009

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Drowning Bear First Graduate of Cherokee Education Degree Program at NSU

Photo of Greg Drowning Bear.
Greg Drowning Bear earned the first bachelor's degree in Cherokee education from Northeastern Oklahoma State University during Commencement ceremonies in December.

When Greg Drowning Bear crossed the stage at Northeastern State University’s fall Commencement ceremony in Jack Dobbins Field House in December 2008, he left an indelible mark on the history of the institution.
Through a partnership between NSU and the Cherokee Nation, Drowning Bear received the first bachelor’s degree in Cherokee Education from the historic institution.

“Every day we lose speakers of the Cherokee language,” said Drowning Bear, Cherokee. “Most of the fluent speakers are above the age of 40. I think it’s essential, for the language to survive, to produce fluent speakers.”

Drowning Bear and his wife, Charlene, moved to Tahlequah in 2004 from north Alabama to enroll their children, daughters Tsahani and Goga, and son Asuyedv, in the Cherokee Language Immersion School at the Cherokee Nation. Drowning Bear returned to finish his studies at Cleveland State Community College in Cleveland, Tenn., where he earned an Associate of Science in education in the spring of 2005, and returned to join his family in Tahlequah.

Around the same time, NSU and the Cherokee Nation announced that the Cherokee Education program had been approved by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, and would launch the program in the fall of 2005. Friends in the area suggested that he check out the program.

“Being around the language when I was growing up, I knew the benefits of speaking the language,” said Drowning Bear. “As luck would have it, this program was starting right around the time I moved here.”

Drowning Bear’s father, grandfather and grandmother were all fluent Cherokee speakers. He wants to keep that tradition going with his own family. Charlene, who graduated from NSU with a Bachelor of General Studies in spring ’08, is pursuing her second degree in the Cherokee education program. Their children are also becoming well versed in the Cherokee language thanks to the Immersion School, where they are only allowed to speak in Cherokee.

“I want the language to survive for my children, for myself and for my people,” said Drowning Bear. “For the Cherokee language to exist, we all have to do our part to sustain it.”

Since the program is so new, jobs in the area are limited. While waiting to see what opportunities arise, Drowning Bear plans to pursue a master’s degree at NSU while studying the effect of language immersion programs on children after they have completed the program.

NSU is one of two public institutions in the nation to offer a teaching degree in a native language. The program prepares students for K-12 teaching positions in Cherokee (speaking, reading, writing) and provides them with a foundation in Cherokee culture and heritage.