A portrait of Anna Sixkiller
by Keli Gonzales. COURTESY
KANSAS, Okla. A fluent Cherokee speaker and longtime translator,
Anna Sixkiller has become a caretaker for the language she holds
"That is my language. It's my first language," said Sixkiller,
a Cherokee National Treasure since 1991. "It's what I work with
every day. I really think about a lot of things when I translate
something who's going to be looking at it and how they're
going to look at it, how they're going to feel, what they're going
to say. I want to put the right words in there so they can understand."
For more than two decades, Sixkiller, 75, of Kansas, Oklahoma,
has helped translate the language for the Cherokee Nation and its
immersion school, museums, universities, libraries, hospitals, the
Cherokee Phoenix and even large tech empires such as Microsoft.
Her early years growing up in Delaware County's Leach community
were spent speaking only Cherokee in her household. It wasn't until
her school years began that learning English became a necessity,
"I didn't know a word of English," Sixkiller said. "So I had a
hard time learning, got in trouble, spankings, this and that, because
I didn't understand what the teachers were saying. I wasn't the
only one. There was a bunch of us."
Sixkiller and her Cherokee-speaking peers were often kept inside
during recess to learn English, she said.
"We started teaching each other," she said. "Some of us would have
a word here and there to understand the English language and we
would help each other. That's how we learned. We began to understand
what the teacher was saying. After that, we enjoyed going to school."
A young Sixkiller was motivated by her mother's bedtime stories
to pursue reading and writing the Cherokee language.
"When Mama told the stories, it was stories from a Bible all written
in Cherokee," Sixkiller said. "She would tell the story and it would
sound so good, and then I'd think, man, it's in this little book
but I can't even read one word. That's really what motivated me
to want to learn so I could read those stories myself."
As an adult, Sixkiller learned those skills "pretty fast" and honed
her mastery of the language under the tutelage of the late Cherokee
linguist Durbin Feeling.
"Durbin had a big part in my life," she said. "He had a class and
I thought I'm going to go and start something, you know. So he gave
me a teaching certificate and I thought, I can do this. I wanted
to be able to do something with our language. So I worked through
Cherokee Nation and I taught adults. When I was working for adult
education, I went out into the communities and taught the language
for years. There are many readers and writers now that I've taught."
Sixkiller later worked with the Cherokee Heritage Center for 17
years, then eventually took a language-related job in 2000 at the
CN once again.
"This coming April will be 21 years since I started working there
and I love it," she said. "I like working with the language. This
is every day."
A memorable project, Sixkiller said, was helping translate the
Windows operating system into Cherokee, a project that was completed
"Every word you see on the computer when you open it, we translated
everything," she said. "So the boys opened up that Windows 8 and
everything was in Cherokee. We all started bawling because it was
so overwhelming, I guess, to see a computer that we translated.
It was a good feeling."