Darren Brown, News9.com
TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma -- The Cherokee Nation bought their first printing press back in the 1820s, and they're still using the day's latest technology to advance their language.
It was almost two hundred years ago that Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, transcribed his tribe's first written language using a system of 86 symbols. Sequoyah was convinced that a written language was the key to a society's progress and spent more than a decade developing his syllabary.
Yesterday's printing press has become today's iPhone. That symbolism is not lost on Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith, who saw a critical need for more language education when he took office almost twelve years ago.
"We had maybe 8,000 speakers but they were all over 50 years of age," Smith said. "Something happened to our national psyche 50 or 60 years ago that parents no longer taught their children to speak."
Smith and his administration worked to establish the Cherokee Immersion School, where students learn their native language exclusively. They also worked with Apple Inc. to develop a workable platform for the Cherokee language to use on the school's computers.
But the Cherokee application for the iPhone has brought the old language into the 21st century, especially for the students at the Cherokee school.
Joseph Erb, who's a language technologist with the tribe, said he sees the iPhone as a way to bridge the generation gap.
"We've worked so hard for them to learn Cherokee. We couldn't afford for them to start texting in English now," Erb said. "We needed to make sure that they still used their language skills in Cherokee."
Erb claims that it's not just the immersion school students that are communicating, but many elders in the tribal community.
"It's probably one of the biggest evolutionary steps we've taken, you know, in quite a number of years for our language," Erb said.
Smith agreed, noting that today's attitude toward the Cherokee language is a far cry from the one that he grew up with.
"As I was growing up, Indians were a vanishing breed, they were people of the past," Smith said. "And when you walk into this building and hear these little ones talking Cherokee, you know we're not a people of the past, we're a people of the future."