Kevin Tafoya grew up hearing Cherokee all around him — his mother, a grandmother and grandfather, aunts and an uncle all spoke the language that now is teetering on the edge of extinction.

Yet his mother purposely didn't teach him.

"She told us she had a hard time in school transitioning from Cherokee to English," Tafoya said. "She didn't want us to have the same problem so she never really taught us when we were younger."

Now the 37-year-old wants something different for his 6-year-old son, Moke, and his 2-year-old daughter, Marijane. Both are enrolled at New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee language immersion school.

The language is "probably only the last real thing about being Cherokee that we have left," he said. "I mean, we have our different arts and stuff. But I think our language really defines us as it does any people."

With fewer than 300 native Cherokee speakers remaining in North Carolina, the clock is ticking to preserve not just the language, but a culture too. For the Eastern Band of Cherokee, hopes lie first with six fifth-graders who have attended New Kituwah (pronounced gi-DOO-wah) since they were babies.

"That's a big thing to hold on the shoulders of kids, that they're carrying the language," said Kylie Crowe Shuler, principal of the private school operated by the tribe. "And I don't want to beat that on them. I want them to enjoy it. And I think that they do."

The school, which opened in 2004, has about 90 students, with 55 in elementary and 35 in early childhood. Kituwah is a powerful word for the Cherokee and the name that they call themselves. The word can have different meanings, including mother town or the center. The area called Kituwah is located about 10 miles west of Cherokee.

From their earliest years, students learn only in Cherokee. Only in the higher grades is English introduced, mostly as a bow to parents concerned about what happens after their children leave the school.

The fifth-graders, members of the first class to attend New Kituwah, seem to grasp what's at stake.

"We're trying to keep a culture going," Haley Smith, 11, said in a recent interview.

Bo Taylor, 45, directs the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; he learned the language as an adult. One of the fifth graders is his 10-year-old daughter Abigail.

"I cannot emphasize enough this first class," he said. "These first kids, these parents that were willing to risk their child's futures and gamble with the belief that Cherokee was important, that's amazing because they were guinea pigs."

Next year, the fifth-graders will get to continue that schooling, thanks to a decision by the tribal council to fund New Kituwah Academy for grades 6-12. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredited New Kituwah in January.

Cherokee had no writing system until the early 1800s, when the renowned Sequoyah wrote a syllabary to put its sounds on paper. While English has one symbol for every letter, Cherokee has one symbol for each of its 80-plus syllables. Unlike many other languages, which focus on nouns and adjectives, Cherokee focuses on verbs. One verb can reveal how many people are talking, what they're doing and how near they are.

The near demise of the language came largely thanks to the U.S. government. Most Cherokee were forced to make a brutal march from the Southeast to Oklahoma in the 1830s. A few stayed behind, keeping a desperate grip on their way of life.

Then, beginning in the late 1800s, officials set up boarding schools to eradicate the American Indian languages. Teachers punished students for speaking their native tongues.

Without New Kituwah or something like it, "the Cherokee language will for sure die," said Walt Wolfram, director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project at N.C. State University. "Lots of people remain skeptical about whether languages can be revived. But the (other) option is certain death. In that sense, Kituwah Academy is the only antidote for what will be inevitable."

New Kituwah is one part of the Eastern Band's effort to preserve the language, said Annette Clapsaddle, director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which has given almost $2 million to the school. Other initiatives include Cherokee language programs at public schools and a Cherokee studies program at Western Carolina University, she said.

Throughout the U.S., Native American tribes in recent years have launched efforts to preserve their languages.

The Cherokee nation in Oklahoma opened the Cherokee Immersion Charter School in 2002, said Julie Hubbard, a spokeswoman for Cherokees there. Students start at age 3 and go through eighth grade, when they can transfer to a public school or to Sequoyah High School, where the Cherokee immersion students study together, she said.

New Kituwah has had problems finding teachers fluent in Cherokee. Most native speakers are in their 60s and 70s and struggle with health issues, school administrators said.

Tafoya said he worries that his children may fall behind in some subjects, but the benefits of New Kituwah outweigh any downsides.

His 2-year-old, Marijane, is picking up some Cherokee words, Tafoya said. When Tafoya picks her up at school, she'll ask "Gah-ZUH a-GAH-shgaa?" meaning where is Rain, which is Moke's Cherokee name. And she knows a favorite word of 2-year-olds in two languages: "No." In Cherokee, that's "Ha-DEE."

Taylor said he believes the immersion school was the right choice for his girls. "Cherokee, it goes to the core of who we are," he said. While some American Indian cultures are in jeopardy, New Kituwah offers hope, he said.

"We're singing our songs again," he said. "We're telling our stories. And the one thing that we have is hope."

Even though she forgets words sometimes, Haley is certain that she and the other fifth-graders will never abandon the Cherokee language.

"A lot of people ask us, what if we forget our language," she said. "And all you can tell them is it's a part of life. You can't just forget that."

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Online:

About New Kituwah Academy:

http://nc-cherokee.com/education/hom/youth-adult-education-services/kituwah-preservation-education/

Cherokee Preservation Foundation: http://cherokeepreservation.org/

Link to documentary titled "First Language" about effort to preserve Cherokee language: https://news.ncsu.edu/2014/11/first-language/

Cherokee immersion school in Oklahoma:

http://www.cherokee.org/News/Stories/20140514CherokeeImmersionCharterSchoolgraduatesmorespeakers.aspx

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Martha Waggoner can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .