Previous Next

Photo: chad_k

Surprising support for the Cherokee language, from Google.

Thanksgiving has a couple of faces. There’s the kindergarten through high school public school take on the matter: sharing a meal; dressing like pilgrims; and tracing hands to put beaks and feet on, Thanksgiving memorabilia for your fridge. And then there’s the Facebook-meme level, the “I’m going to invite my neighbors in for a meal, and then kill them” — a sardonic, let’s not celebrate this massacre and subsequent loss of culture message that takes less than a second to disseminate.

For many, the “First Thanksgiving,” a celebration of the Pilgrims’ survival, and a sharing of late autumn harvest bounty, also represents an important stage in decimation of most of the indigenous peoples across the continent. One such group is the Cherokee people of North America, who lost more than a quarter of their number in the 1830s Trail of Tears, a forced relocation project.

There are now about 300,000 Cherokee Nation Members, which represents most, but not all, Cherokee. Most Cherokee reside in Oklahoma and North Carolina. While the nation has strong traditions, a museum, and a monthly English-language online newspaper, use of their indigenous language has fallen in recent years. Several organizations, including the Cherokee themselves, have introduced efforts to revitalize the language. But the most recent push came from a fairly unexpected place.

Cherokee language in Gmail

A happenstance meeting of the minds has led to Google introducing Cherokee as the 57th language in which Gmail is available, beginning this week.

One of the main elements of cultural identity is a shared language. According to National Geographic, every 14 days, another indigenous language dies. With the language death, history and stories are lost, as well as important cultural markers. 1

A confluence of factors — including: the Trail of Tears; forced education of Native American children in English-only boarding schools; and US governmental policies that led to nearly five times the number of indigenous children being removed from their homes as compared to non-indigenous children until recently — have pushed many indigenous North American languages into decline.

In 1978, the US government passed the Indian Child Welfare Act which was aimed at stopping these practices and prioritizing keeping indigenous children with their tribe. But much linguistic and cultural damage was already done. 2

In recent times, the process by which a language dies is slow, but seems inexorable. The language fades from use at home, is not reinforced in school, and slowly, the fluent speakers age, and eventually die. Factors leading to lack of home use have to do with being a cultural minority, and the prestige (or lack thereof) associated with bilingualism, or the language itself. Adults choose not to speak, and children opt not to learn what they perceive as “low-prestige languages,” preferring “high-prestige languages” — in this case, English.

Cherokee (better spelled Tsalagi) is one indigenous language whose speakers are trying to reverse the trend. A 2002 survey conducted by the Cherokee found that no one under 40 spoke the language — which is the only remaining language of the Southern Iroquois language — conversationally. 3 The language now has about 22,000 speakers, a small percentage of the total population.

In 2008, Western Carolina University started partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee to develop an educational curriculum for Cherokee immersion classes. 4 Grade-school classes in Cherokee began on a small scale starting in the 2009-2010 academic year, and continue to grow. Adult education classes in language and culture take place at cultural centers, museums, and schools in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

How did Google get involved?

It all happened by accident, a shared ride between Craig Cornelius — a Google engineer — and Vance Blackfox — a member of the Cherokee Nation — on their way back from an event. Cornelius was working on “internationalization of Google products,” and talking with Blackfox set a series of events in motion, which later led to Google Web Search in Cherokee, and eventually to Gmail in Cherokee, facilitated by the Google-created Cherokee virtual keyboard, which allows users to type using the 85-symbol Cherokee (also called Sequoyah) syllabary.

The transition to developing Gmail in Cherokee had to be helped along, with Cherokee speakers having to supply words for many tech-specific terms, including “inbox” and “spam.” Tsalagi / Cherokee is now the 57th language supported by Gmail. One of the others is Welsh, which has its own language revitalization story, with numbers of speakers rising since the beginning of compulsory Welsh education in schools starting in 2000.

What does the inclusion of a Gmail option in Cherokee mean for the Cherokee people?

The linguist David Crystal, in his book Language Death, identifies six factors for language revitalization, which is the opposite of language death. These include prestige, gaining wealth and power, the language’s presence in the educational setting, a writing system, and lastly, the ability to use it to access electronic technology. With this latest innovation supported by Google, Cherokee / Tsalagi has stronger footing on the technology front.
2 For a UN report on ICWA, read this.

About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • Jessie Wych

    This is the sort of piece that I experience as the heart of Matador Network. Thank you. My Hopi friend was kidnapped from her grandmother by the BIA school goons and beaten every time she spoke Hopi. One of my Dine (Navajo) students and his friends were taken into a windowless shed and told to reach for the stars for an hour – for speaking Dine. If the teachers opened the door and caught them with their hands down, they were beaten. Try raising your arms full length above your head and wiggling your fingers for even ten minutes. It is excruciating. My Hopi friend was kidnapped sixty years ago. My Dine student was put through that suffering thirty years ago.

    • Eileen Smith

      There are so many stories, and they are so horrible. I feel like there are a lot of people that still don’t know about the tremendous efforts that people made to destroy various Native American cultures. Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading the piece!

    • Jessie Wych

      A couple dozen of us took part in a prayer circle yesterday in honor of the sacred mountains that stand just to the north of Flagstaff. Half of the women, men and children were Dine. Most of them offered their prayers in Navajo. The group leader spoke of the important of children learning the language. At one point, I looked east. The waxing moon had just risen up in the daytime sky. I wondered what the Navajo word for just that phase of the moon was. It was not the time to ask.

    • Eileen Smith

      Pure poetry.

  • Scott Hartman

    Thank you for this.

  • Kate Stasik

    This is such important work; thank you for highlighting it. As a teacher of Lakota students on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I was saddened by the lack of Lakota spoken by my students but heartened by the growing efforts to revitalize the language.

    One instance of the beauty of Lakota that stays with me is when an elder spoke of the Lakota word for child — wakanheja, meaning “sacred being” — as opposed to the English word for child — “kid”, also used to refer to goats. The mild jab at English culture aside, the sentiment resounded with me: in a people’s language lies their culture and their values, and in order to preserve the latter, the former must be saved.

    Something I still struggle to reconcile is the importance of preserving language despite the reluctance of many speakers to “bastardize” their language by turning an oral language into a written one. I’d be interested to find out how Cherokee speakers, particularly elders, feel about Google’s representation of their language. I know there were several attempts at a Lakota dictionary before a consensus was found and that many elders still aren’t convinced of the language revitalization efforts.

    There was a great site working on developing Lakota speakers through social networking (, but it appears to be down now.

    • Eileen Smith

      Thanks Kate, that was educational! I have not heard about people resisting codification of their language in written form, even when originally there was none. But maybe I’m just uninformed. I would like to think that promoting the language on any level would meet with approval, but reasonable minds may differ!

  • Lucien Ông

    not only Google is giving the Cherokees a stronger technology presence, but Cherokee keyboard is available on Apple’s iPhone as well, thought just the keyboard not the interface.

    • Eileen Smith

      It’s a big advance, for sure. I do wonder how much literacy there is in the Cherokee syllabary, given that it originally did not have a writing system, and one was introduced for it in the 1800s. Thanks for your comment!

  • Absar Ahmad

    I wish if somehow we can preserve them all…!!

Over in Slate, in a piece titled Terrorists, Dissidents and Copy Editors, Christopher...
I’ve always had a soft spot for making up the etymology and history behind certain...
We have no special word for that special morsel like the Spanish do.
Think of these expressions as ways to get inside of a particular worldview, and to show...
My students would snicker when I wrote "favourite" on the board: "Teacher, bad spell!"
A hilarious song in Spanish about how hard it is to speak Spanish.
Language and culture are so intertwined that people groups often use language to define...
How many people could you talk to if you picked up nine more languages?
Don't give up on a language you've forgotten--use these steps to recover it!
Nearly half of the world's languages are predicted to disappear by 2050 - what can you do...