Cherokee and technology

Believe it or not, the Cherokee Nation, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, has always been on the cutting edge of new technology. Over the last eight years, the tribe’s Cherokee Nation Language Technology department, which collaborates closely with the tribe’s translation office, has worked with the largest technology companies in the world. A Cherokee language version of Windows was developed for Microsoft and is the only tribal language supported by Microsoft in its North American products.

The tribe worked with Apple to have a font and keyboard be included as part of the operating system on all iPads, iPods and iPhones, providing users the ability to communicate in the Cherokee syllabary using these devices. The tribe has also been translating Facebook as a crowdsourcing project, where anyone speaking the language is allowed to submit a translation and the translation with the most votes wins. Even the Google homepage features a virtual Cherokee keyboard, and offers Gmail translated into the Cherokee language.

But adopting the latest and greatest technologies is nothing all that new for Cherokees. They have always been quick to adopt the latest technologies of the time. Why? To communicate using their own language among each other as well as share it with others from afar.

The Cherokee Nation has its own unique writing system called the Cherokee syllabary. This syllabary was invented by Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏉᏯ), roughly between the years 1809 and 1821, and it was officially adopted as the writing system of the Cherokee Nation. Sequoyah was a silver smith living in Cherokee country, which originally included parts of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. Sequoyah’s original syllabary design was a cursive-styled writing system. According to written accounts, weeks after the syllabary’s introduction to the Cherokee community, the majority of Cherokees were literate in the Cherokee language.

The cursive syllabary was later simplified thanks to the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper published by Cherokees. The cursive syllabary was difficult to create a typeset mold for, so a modern, refined version was invented and is still used today. The first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix was published February 21, 1828, and was printed in both English and Cherokee. The stories told in English were often not the same stories in Cherokee.

The paper was used as a tool to fight removal efforts by the US government to relocate tribes to Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma. Though the removal did ultimately occur, the Cherokee Phoenix, after some brief periods of quiet, is still in publication today.

Having the ability to print a syllabary, Cherokees published bibles, hymn books, arithmetic books, almanacs, tribal laws, constitutions and various periodicals throughout the nineteenth century. Over one million pages of Cherokee language text were printed on Cherokee presses. Upon Oklahoma statehood in 1907, Cherokee print operations were shuttered, but later in the twentieth century, printing in syllabary was revived. Handwritten personal correspondence in syllabary never stopped being produced despite the lack of formal printing operations. These documents are still referenced today for lost words and also as teaching tools.

Once they reestablished their communities and tribal governance, Cherokees began seminary schools, which taught both male and female students of any race, something no other school in the United States did at the time. Courses included Greek, Latin, German and French; chemistry, botany, geology, astronomy and zoology; geography, US and English history, political economy and philosophy, just to name a few. These schools were considered elite and students received a first-rate education.

In 1886 the Cherokee Nation was the first to establish a phone line west of the Mississippi River. Using trees along the roadway, they strung phone lines from Tahlequah to Ft. Gibson, roughly 30 miles, to connect the two towns. Once the connection was made, one Cherokee speaker spoke to the other and it was noted that this technology “speaks our language,” and was quickly adopted by the tribe.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, the latest writing technology was typewriters. In the 1960s, a Hermes 3000 typewriter was produced that featured the Cherokee syllabary. Since there were 85 Cherokee syllabary characters in use, numbers, some punctuation and other characters had to be eliminated from the keyboard. In the mid-1970s, the Cherokee Nation worked with IBM to create an IBM Selectric Typewriter ball in syllabary. Unlike the Hermes typewriter using an arm system, the Selectric used a rotating ball that not only allowed for more characters, but also different sized fonts to be created by changing out the ball.

In the late 1970s computers were starting to be the new thing. Famous font designer Hermann Zapf, who was a pioneer in typography with many of his fonts still in use today, began designing a Cherokee font for computers, but the font was never completed. So even in the 70s non-Cherokees saw the willingness of the Cherokee people to adopt any type of writing technology for the syllabary and were attempting to utilize technologies of the time.

In the mid-1980s the word processor was the craze. So the Cherokee Nation contracted with a company in Louisiana to develop word processing software in Cherokee. The very first word-processed document in syllabary was presented to Chief Wilma Mankiller in 1987. This technology was used until computers began to outnumber word processors.

In the early 1990s, computers were beginning to become commonplace, and Cherokee fonts began to appear. The first Cherokee font for desktop publishing was called Whitepath, designed by Franklin McLain and Al Webster. In 1993, a Cherokee syllabary font was developed by Yale student Joan Touzet, which would provide the foundation for the Cherokee Nation’s own font, released in 1999.

But with the fonts came issues. For example, if you typed an email and sent that message to someone who didn’t have the Cherokee font installed, it just showed up as seemingly random English characters since the Cherokee glyphs in the font were mapped onto English character places. Also, different iterations of the Cherokee font were created as small updates were made, so even if you had one version and someone else another, it still caused issues. The cause of the issue: the Cherokee character set was not Unicode compliant.

In early 2000, Cherokee was formally encoded into Unicode after an application was made by the Cherokee Nation. If a person had a font such as Plantagenet Cherokee installed on their computer and they emailed a user who only had the Digowehli font installed on their machine, for example, the Cherokee syllabary could be displayed correctly, since both fonts are Unicode compliant. Thus, communication barriers as far as what fonts to use were no longer a problem.

In 2007 the Cherokee Nation began using MacBooks in the Cherokee Immersion Charter School. This is a school where no English is spoken and all subjects are taught in the Cherokee language. Why Mac? In 2003 Apple added a Cherokee keyboard and font to the Macintosh operating system, version 10.3.

Interestingly enough, the Cherokee Nation did not ask them to do this. Most technology firms use the Unicode standard to see which languages are and are not encoded, so languages that do have encoding are easier to support in software. Apple founder Steve Jobs appreciated typographic design and calligraphy, and it was rumored that he found the Cherokee syllabary intriguing as a writing system. Students at the immersion school receive a Mac laptop beginning in second grade, and continue to use the computer until they leave the sixth grade and go on to middle school.

In 2009 Facebook opened its interface to be localized into Cherokee via a crowdsourcing project. Anyone is allowed to join the Facebook translation application as a Cherokee user. Translations for terms were submitted by users, and whichever translation received the most votes from the Cherokee community became the official translation displayed on Facebook’s interface. Facebook is ever-changing and updating and is still being translated today.

Also in 2009, Cherokee Nation Language Technology began a collaboration with Apple to develop a font and keyboard for the iPhone. When Apple released iOS 4.3 on September 9, 2010, over 40 million iPhones had the ability to display and type in Cherokee. Unlike what most think, this is not an app the user needs to download. It is actually a part of iOS itself. All the user has to do is go to the device system settings, add the Cherokee keyboard, and they have Cherokee on their iPhone. Since all Apple mobile products run on iOS, the iPad and iPod also have Cherokee typing and display capabilities. When this occurred, Cherokee was the first Native American language represented on any smartphone or tablet. This allowed users to easily post photos and videos in Cherokee, including to active Instagram accounts.

It was at about this point that those of us in Language Technology started to see an interesting shift. In the early to mid-2000s when language technology first began to integrate Cherokee and technology, we received not so much a push back from the Cherokee community, but rather a simple question: “why is this necessary?” Most fluent Cherokee speakers are over the age of 40, and so they really saw no need for technology and the Cherokee language to mix.

However, being able to communicate on a broad spectrum of devices in our native tongue was one of many ways to help revitalize our language. We knew that children’s lives today largely revolve around technology. So, after the Cherokee keyboard and font were introduced on the iPhone, we began visiting the Cherokee Immersion School to let the kids play with the new devices. Then we thought maybe we could bridge the gap from young to old by having the students text and email questions and greetings to elders. It instantly clicked. With tears in their eyes, some of our elders wanted an iPhone! They saw the usefulness of technology; it allowed them to communicate with Cherokee youth and not only guide them but teach them the Cherokee language.

Continuing on

In 2011 Cherokee Nation Language Technology partnered with Google to translate the Google homepage. Along with this, Google also wanted to develop a virtual keyboard. This way, if a user didn’t have a Cherokee keyboard installed, they could use the virtual keyboard. After the completion of the Google homepage in 2012, Gmail was localized and released in Cherokee. And in 2014, Android 5.0 was released, which introduced Cherokee syllabary support. The user just needed to download a third-party keyboard from the Google Play store. As of 2018, Google has developed a Cherokee keyboard so the user no longer has to download the third-party keyboard.

In 2012, the Cherokee Nation partnered with Microsoft and began the largest localization project to date. Microsoft wanted a Cherokee graphical user interface (GUI) version of Windows 8. Approximately five Cherokee Nation staff translators and nine contract translators worked on this project over an 18-month period, and around 500,000 words were translated. The end result was a Windows 8 translation entirely in Cherokee. The user would download a Language Interface Packet (LIP) and after installing it, the entire operating system was in Cherokee.

Since the Cherokee Nation was successful with Microsoft Windows, the tribe was next approached by the Microsoft Office team. They wanted us to translate OneDrive, formerly known as SkyDrive. A user can log into OneDrive and access Cherokee versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and so on for free, and all they need is a Microsoft account. In January 2014, Microsoft released the first version of OneDrive in Cherokee. This is a continuing project with Microsoft as updates occur monthly.

Next Microsoft asked that Windows 10 be translated into Cherokee. Even though Windows 8 was completed this was still a large project because so many new features were being offered. This project has been completed but updates are still being translated daily.

Aside from working with technology companies, Language Technology also develops Cherokee posters, activity books and other teaching tools to promote the Cherokee language.

With all the work that has been accomplished with all the major technology companies, it is important to mention that not one penny was spent by the Cherokee Nation to make this dream a reality. It was free! Minus the salaries of the employees working on the project, the technology companies picked up the tab for all of this work. 

When we go to do a presentation somewhere we always start with a disclaimer at the beginning of our talk: “here at Language Technology we are not computer programmers, typographers or MIT graduates. We are actually artists. Minus typing up a Word document, sending some emails and maybe swapping out a hard drive here and there we have no experience in this field.” This always gets a laugh, mainly because the audience thinks we are joking. But in truth, between the three of us working at Language Technology combined, none of us has experience in this line of work. And it proves that just because you don’t have the experience to make something happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will fail.