Cherokee now included on iPhone keyboard

By ROBERT EVATT World Staff Writer
Read more from this Tulsa World article at

Though the fifth-grade class at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School in Tahlequah use computers throughout the school day, their eyes light up when education services staff let them borrow iPhones.  Within seconds they cluster around the gadgets, happily tapping out messages like countless other cell-phone users.

But unlike most, their texts aren’t in English – they’re in Cherokee.

And they aren’t using specially modified iPhones. Every one of the estimated 100 million global iPhone users running iOS 4.1, the latest version of the smart phone’s software released last month, already have support for the distinct Cherokee language within their device.

Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said the decision by Apple Inc. to make Cherokee one of the 40 languages supported by iPhones isn’t just a great honor, it’s a true milestone for the tribe’s language.

“People might think it’s a novelty, but where you can see the importance is when you remember 1822, when the Cherokee written language was developed,” he said. “It was also seen as a novelty, but within 10 years 90 percent of Cherokees were literate.”

Smith’s hope is that smart-phone support will ensure the Cherokee language, which now has an estimated 8,000 fluent and over 200 literate, remains healthy and useful to younger tribe members in an increasingly digital age.

“By default, our children have a way to learn the language in a method they’re familiar,” he said.

And tech workers within the tribe are hoping the language support will open up a flood of apps to make it vastly easier for Cherokees to stay within the language.

The Cherokee Nation Immersion School, a facility run by the nation that has children communicating solely in Cherokee from first bell to last, has incorporated iMacs loaded with the language and a Cherokee keyboard since Apple’s full-scale computer started supporting it in 2003.

Joseph Erb, an education services group worker for the nation, said the computers are a great way to learn Cherokee within the classroom, but that influence can be limited.

“We have to figure out ways to get the children to stay in the language,” he said. “Once you leave these doors, it’s all English.”

And there’s seemingly little modern youths love more than communicating on cell phones. Lauren Hummingbird, a fifth-grade student at the immersion school, said she uses three different cell phones within her family and was excited to hear that she’ll be able to use some in Cherokee.

“I love it,” she said.

Erb said the process of including Cherokee on the iPhone began three years ago. The tribal government has a sales team in touch with Apple and other companies, and workers passed on documentation for the language to Apple.

“Apple’s an easy group to work with,” he said.

But they’re also a company that keeps a tight lid on potential developments, so tribe employees didn’t know it was coming until the beta version of iOS 4.1 came out a month before its widespread release. Tech workers for the nation helped fine-tune the language support.

Erb said the Cherokee Nation had already released several iPhone apps before the language support came out, including a Cherokee dictionary, the Cherokee constitution and a portal for the Cherokee Phoenix, the nation’s official newspaper.

But having the language embedded in the phone itself will make development of apps that use the Cherokee language much easier.

“Before, to develop an app in Cherokee took some trickery,” he said.

The iPad will hopefully get Cherokee language support for its virtual keyboard in the near future, as Apple plans to soon have the same operating system running the iPhone and iPad, Erb said.