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Robert Bushyhead

Short Name: Robert Bushyhead
Full Name: Bushyhead, Robert H., 1914-2016
Birth Year: 1914
Death Year: 2016

THE REVEREND ROBERT BUSHYHEAD was a Cherokee linguist whose efforts to preserve his native Kituhwa dialect, spoken by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians until government attempts to stamp it out in the early 1900s, brought the language to a new generation of Cherokees - fewer than 1,000 of whom now speak the dialect.

Robert Henry Bushyhead was born in 1914 and brought up in a one-room log cabin in the Birdtown community of the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina.

Bushyhead's ancestors had been among the Cherokees removed from their homes there, and in Georgia and Tennessee, in 1838, and forcibly resettled in the Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma. The 1,000 mile march to their new location had killed more than 4,000 members of the tribe and was remembered as the "Trail of Tears".

Bushyhead first heard English when he was six, a year before he was enrolled in a government boarding school. The emphasis there was on discipline and the children were forbidden to speak Cherokee.

Bushyhead and his friends would sneak down to the furnace room to talk Cherokee. They were frequently caught and punished with a severity normally reserved for illicit smoking or chewing gum. Almost all the children punished later declined to teach their children Cherokee for fear that they might suffer similar punishment.

Under this regime, Bushyhead mastered English and, after graduating from Carson Newman College, was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister. He became first a home missionary to the Eastern Cherokees and afterwards worked as a travelling evangelist.

In his sermons at various churches he began to draw on Indian lore, and later taught Sunday School in Kituhwa at the United Methodist Church in the Qualla Indian Boundary.

Bushyhead's determination to see Kituhwa revived involved arriving in his wheelchair early each morning at a small log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to repeat word after word until each recording was accurate. He also taught Cherokee history at the Steiner-Bell Institute in Tennessee.

For this work, which was partly funded from the proceeds of casinos on Indian reservations, Bushyhead received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award.

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