TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Nine-year-old Lauren Hummingbird asked for a cell phone for Christmas — and not just any old phone, but an iPhone. Such a request normally would be met with skepticism by her father, Cherokee Nation employee Jamie Hummingbird.
He could dismiss the obvious reasons a kid might want an iPhone, except for this — he's a proud Cherokee, and buying his daughter the phone just might help keep the tribe's language alive.
Nearly two centuries after a blacksmith named Sequoyah converted Cherokee into its own written form, the tribe has worked with Apple to develop Cherokee language software for the iPhone, iPod and — soon — the iPad. Computers used by students at the tribe's language immersion school already allow them to type using Cherokee characters.
The goal, Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said, is to spread the use of the language among tech-savvy children in the digital age. Smith has been known to text students at the school using Cherokee, and teachers do the same, allowing students to continue using the language after school hours.
Tribal officials first contacted Apple about getting Cherokee on the iPhone three years ago. It seemed like a long shot, as the devices support only 50 of the thousands of languages worldwide, and none were American Indian tongues. But Apple's reputation for innovation gave the tribe hope.
After many discussions and a visit from Smith, Apple surprised the tribe by coming through this fall.
"There are countries vying to get on these devices for languages, so we are pretty excited we were included," said Joseph Erb, who works in the Cherokee Nation's language technology division.
The Cherokee take particular pride in their past, including the alphabet, or syllabary, Sequoyah developed in 1821. In 1828, the tribe obtained a printing press and began publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, which the Cherokee claim was the nation's first bilingual newspaper. Copies circulated as far away as Europe, tribal officials say.
The Cherokee language thrived back then, but like other tribal tongues, it has become far less prevalent over the decades. Today, only about 8,000 Cherokee speakers remain — a fraction of the tribe's 290,000 members — and most of those are 50 or older, Smith said.
Tribal leaders realized something must done to encourage younger generations to learn the language.
"What makes you a Cherokee if you don't have Cherokee thoughts?" asked Rita Bunch, superintendent of the tribe's Sequoyah Schools.
Tribal officials thus decided to develop the language immersion school, in which students would be taught multiple subjects in a Cherokee-only environment.
The Oklahoma school began in 2001 and now has 105 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. They work on Apple laptops already loaded with the Cherokee language — the Macintosh operating system has supported Cherokee since 2003 — and featuring a unique keypad overlay with Cherokee's 85 characters, each of which represent a different syllable.
But Erb and co-workers Jeff Edwards and Roy Boney knew there had to be more ways to tap into the younger generation's love of cell phones, iPods and the like.
"If you don't figure out a way to keep technology exciting and innovative for the language, kids have a choice when they get on a cell phone," Erb said.
Initially, the thought was to simply create an application so texting could be done in Cherokee. But that idea quickly grew.
Smith compared the use of Cherokee on Apple devices to Sequoyah's creation of the syllabary and the tribe's purchase of the printing press.
He sees a day when tribal members routinely will read books and perform plays and operas in their native language.
"You always hear the cliche, 'History repeats itself.' This is one of those historic moments that people just don't comprehend what is happening," the chief said. "What this does is give us some hope that the language will be revitalized."