Documentary featuring work of Belt, Francis wins Mid-South Emmy

“First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee,” a documentary highlighting work by two Western Carolina University faculty members, was awarded a Midsouth Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Nashville Chapter on Saturday, Feb. 27.

A promotion from the television premiere of "First Language" on UNC-TV acknowledges associate producers Tom Belt and Francis Hartnell.

A promotion from the television premiere of “First Language” on UNC-TV acknowledges associate producers Tom Belt and Francis Hartnell.

Tom Belt, coordinator of WCU’s Cherokee language program and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Hartwell Francis, director of the program, are co-producers of the documentary and were interviewed in it about their work to preserve the Cherokee language.

It won the “Documentary/Cultural” division of the regional Emmy awards.

“I am very happy for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the community of Cherokee language speakers and learners,” Francis said of the award. “The documentary demonstrates their tenacity and ethic as they work to keep the Cherokee language vibrant and current.”

A visit by filmmakers from the North Carolina Language and Life Project interested in the efforts of WCU’s Cherokee language program was the starting point in the documentary’s development.

“Walt Wolfram, a famous linguist and William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English at N.C. State, came to visit in the spring of 2013,” Francis said. “Dr. Wolfram was intrigued by the work we were engaged in with the Eastern Band community and with the Cherokee speakers.

“They worked on the video through the summer of 2013.  They held a community screening the summer of 2014; they had a feature length rough draft at that time.  The community enjoyed the draft and provided some substantial constructive criticism. The official release was at the North Carolina History Museum on November 21, 2014. The screening and panel discussion received a standing ovation.”

On April 9, 2015, the documentary premiered on UNC-TV, and repeated the next day. It was shown again, on Saturday, Feb. 27 – the day it received the award.

The Midsouth Emmy Awards, recognizing excellence in programming created and shared from sources in North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, announced the film’s nomination in December.

A promotional clip can be seen at The documentary’s Facebook page is found at

Francis was quoted about Cherokee language preservation efforts in an article in the Wall Street Journal on February 29.

Categories | The Reporter

Photos | WCU News Services

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