Preserving Cherokee Nation language through technology

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Mobile solutions serve tribal elders and protect their sacred language

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- Among the more than 380,000 citizens of the Cherokee Nation -- the largest tribe in the U.S. -- there are roughly 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, making people who speak this sacred language increasingly rare. When COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued for Tahlequah, Okla., capital of the Cherokee Nation, on March 19, 2020, tribal elders who speak only Cherokee were no longer able to meet in person with translators who could help them better understand the pandemic, how to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, and arrange in their native language for medical care and the delivery of food and prescriptions.

“We had to educate our elders who only speak Cherokee, and they had to understand that this threat and new rules had to be followed. A lot of these concepts don’t exist culturally or in direct translations between Cherokee and English,” said Howard Paden, who leads the tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.

To keep elders connected to the translators who provide news and instructions in Cherokee, Paden and his team partnered with Verizon to set up its OneTalk service, creating a virtual hotline to ensure every call from an elder was answered. OneTalk works by routing an incoming call to multiple mobile or landline phones, so if one line goes unanswered, it automatically forwards to another number until the call is answered. Cherokee elder speakers use the hotline to get pandemic-related questions answered, arrange for deliveries from the Cherokee Nation’s COVID-19 emergency food program, make doctor appointments and refill prescriptions.

The Cherokee Nation has also partnered with Verizon to enable distance learning. Paden and his team host virtual classes with elementary school students enrolled in the Cherokee language program at the Cherokee Immersion Charter School. Verizon devices are also being used to help the Cherokee Nation complex operators work remotely while fielding tribal government services calls.

“We’re able to meet the needs of our community during a time of uncertainty. [Those who speak Cherokee] are more comfortable hearing things if it is communicated in Cherokee,” said Paden. “When you can communicate in the language of parents and grandparents, it eases fears.”

Visit the Verizon COVID-19 information page to learn more about Verizon’s response.

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