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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Letter Perfect
by Clifton Adcock - Tulsa (OK) World Staff Writer
credits: photos by Adam Wisneski - Tulsa World
Keyboard overlays help teach students the Cherokee language.

TAHLEQUAH — Hunkered over the white laptop computer on her desk, Rachel Ballou began to type.

"Hi, Helena," Rachel, 9, wrote. "Last Friday, we started making quilts. My quilt was green."

It was an e-mail to her teacher, the typical class assignment one would expect to see for most third-graders, recounting what she had done while the teacher was away for a few days.

But with each keystroke, a once-dying language grew a little bit stronger.

The e-mail was composed entirely in Cherokee syllabary.

Rachel and others at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School are the new keepers of their culture's fire, carrying into the information age the Cherokee language and its syllabary, created by Sequoyah nearly two centuries ago.

Although the font was created through an agreement between the tribe and Apple Inc. a few years ago, the students have a new tool to help type the language: a keyboard overlay that replaces the letters of the English alphabet with those of the 85-character syllabary.

Students had been using a variety of keystrokes on a standard keyboard to type in Cherokee, but now they can lay a thin black silicone pad over the standard keyboard to find the corresponding characters.

"We had to use a little paper, and it was much harder," said Dalyn Patterson, a third-grader at the school.

Rachel added: "It was hard. We couldn't really remember" the correct keys.

"Now, we can look at the keyboard instead of going all the way up there for answers," she added, referring to the key-translation chart that hung at the front of the classroom.

The new keypads also will be used by the Cherokee Nation Translation Department, students in the Cherokee language program at Northeastern State University, and students in other American-Indian programs using computers embedded with the Cherokee characters.

The third-graders' teacher, Helena McCoy, said almost all writing assignments in the class are done on computer. The keypad speeds up the process and helps the students retain the information.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the keypad is an important tool in preserving the Cherokee language.

"We'll try every trick we can to revitalize the language," he said. "It's an uphill battle, but we see glimmers of hope on occasion — and this is one of those glimmers of hope."

McCoy said she hopes the keypad helps students remember the language and characters to pass on to others.

"I hope they all learn and retain what they're learning," she said. "They can get an education, come back and be teachers. They're teaching already; they go home and teach their mom and dad."

Rachel said her experience in the class and learning the language has helped her to teach her mother Cherokee words that she had forgotten and to speak Cherokee with her grandmother, who is fluent.

"It's fun to learn new things," she said. "I love coming here to summer school because I want to learn more things. I really enjoy speaking in Cherokee."

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