TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The children stand in a circle, just beyond a poster of a U.S. map that highlights the swath of the Southeastern United States that the Cherokees once controlled.
The fourth-grade students are in a classroom at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School in eastern Oklahoma, where they speak, learn and write in nothing but the tongue of their ancestors.
The conversation among the animated pupils bounces around the circle. They are preparing for a Cherokee language competition and in doing so, talking about a scenario in which they are looking to meet up with their teacher, Glenda Beitz, in a Walmart parking lot — if they could only remember where she lived.
The exercise aims to emphasize Oklahoma town names because “those are disappearing in our language,” said Beitz, 49, who has taught the class of eight 9-year-olds since they entered kindergarten.
When they finish with the conversation exercise, the students tap out assignments in the 86 characters of the Cherokee syllabary on their computers. At their disposal are Cherokee-language versions of Microsoft Office Suite, Google and Wikipedia. There are also Cherokee-language apps and a Cherokee YouTube channel. Facebook is available in Cherokee. And text messages can be sent in the Cherokee language too.
The school and language-integrated technology are two trailblazing efforts put in place to save and preserve the Cherokee tongue. But even so, the staunchest supporters of the tribe’s language preservation efforts still wonder, Will they be able to save the imperiled language?