ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)

Logline: With fewer than 2,000 fluent speakers left, a small group of Cherokee activists race to save their language from extinction.

Synopsis: The Cherokee language is deeply tied to Cherokee identity; yet generations of assimilation efforts by the U.S. government and anti-Indigenous stigmas have forced the Tri-Council of Cherokee tribes to declare a State of Emergency for the language in 2019. While there are 430,000 Cherokee citizens in the three federally recognized tribes, fewer than an estimated 2,000 fluent speakers remain—the majority of whom are elderly. The covid pandemic has unfortunately hastened the course. Language activists, artists, and the youth must now lead the charge of urgent radical revitalization efforts to help save the language from the brink of extinction.

This feature-length documentary was shot on-location in Oklahoma and North Carolina throughout 2019-2022; through intimate interviews, vérité footage of community gatherings, and extensive archival materials, the film explores the nuanced ways the Cherokee language is vital to maintaining a unique cultural identity and relationship with the world. The collaborative project is also meant to act as an empowering agent of hope for Indigenous voices despite enduring inequity and oppression.

Directors: ᎤᎶᎩᎳ/Schon Duncan & Michael McDermit
Producers: ᎨᎳᏗ /Keli Gonzales & Laura Heberton
Director of Photography & Editor: Jacob Koestler
Executive Producers: Wes Studi, Traci Sorell, Gill Holland, Thomas Sadoski, & Ben Speiser

  • Schon Duncan
  • Michael McDermit
    The Dormant Language of Love, Strawberry Forever, Sell Me A Cow
  • Keli Gonzales
    What They've Been Taught
  • Laura Heberton
    Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Butter on the Latch, God Bless the Child, Freeland
  • Jacob Koestler
    Director of Photography
    The Dormant Language of Love, Strawberry Forever, Sell Me A Cow
  • Wes Studi
    Executive Producer
    Last of the Mohicans, Avatar, Dances With Wolves
  • Gill Holland
    Executive Producer
    Hurricane Streets, Flow: For Love of Water, Spring Forward, Loggerheads, It Felt Like Love, Look And See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
  • Project Type:
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 34 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    December 1, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    64,839 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
    Cherokee, English
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Cleveland International Film Festival
    United States
    March 23, 2023
    World Premiere
    Official Selection
  • FilmFort @ Treefort Music Festival
    United States
    March 25, 2023
    Official Selection
Director Biography - Schon Duncan, Michael McDermit

Born and raised in Stilwell, Oklahoma, ᎤᎶᎩᎳ/Schon Duncan is a product of language work provided by elders/teachers in his early years and beyond. In 2014, he graduated from Northeastern State University and completed the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program in 2019. Recently, Duncan began his teaching career as a Cherokee Language Teacher at Dahlonegah Public School. He is a proud member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. He is currently at work on his first film, ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak), a feature length documentary about the fight to save the Cherokee language from extinction.

Michael McDermit makes and produces documentary films, books and other printed projects under a small independent creative imprint, Blurry Pictures. BP documentaries have enjoyed fruitful film festival runs at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival, and the Cleveland International Film Festival, among many others. His film Strawberry Forever, about his father's struggle with aphasia, took home the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 disABILITY Film Festival. ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak) is his first feature-length documentary. McDermit earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon. In addition to filmmaking, he teaches English and Creative Writing to underserved college students in South Los Angeles.

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Director Statement

This documentary project represents a culmination of the last decade of my life, in which I have returned to our language and am now working to revitalize it. This film documents intimate parts of Cherokee culture that many people (even many Cherokee tribal citizens) don't have access to. Among other things, it explores secluded communities in rural Oklahoma where the Cherokee language is still being spoken and taught by first-language speakers. As a citizen of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, my positionality and knowledge on the crisis at hand has afforded me a unique opportunity to involve voices in our communities who are often overlooked by other media producers. Many of the subjects in the film are my colleagues, teachers, friends, family, and, most importantly, some of the tribes' remaining first-language speakers. The film crew is also largely composed of other Cherokee/Keetoowah citizens in roles of production, including camera operators, musicians, translators, and animators. The Cherokee history and personal stories told in this film not only stand to bring awareness to the issue of language loss, but also are meant to inspire people to join into the work of ongoing language revitalization. This documentary represents my greatest effort of reaching the widest audience about this work to showcase the warriors and elders who are in the trenches, hoping you join the fight. ᏩᏙ.
-- ᎤᎶᎩᎳ ᏛᎩ / Schon Duncan