Cherokees & Apple Bring Cherokee Language to iOS

The Cherokee nation went to Apple to ask the company to support the Cherokee language in iOS, according to a report from the Associated Press. In an effort to preserve the Cherokee language, the tribe recognized that the best way to get young people immersed in the language was to offer them tech tools that supported both a modern life and the language.

“If you don’t figure out a way to keep technology exciting and innovative for the language, kids have a choice when they get on a cell phone,” Joseph Erb, a member of the tribe’s tech division, told the AP. “If it doesn’t have Cherokee on it, they all speak English. They’ll just give up their Cherokee […] because the cool technology is in English. So we had to figure out a way to make the cool technology in Cherokee.”

The tribe approached Apple three years ago, according to members who spoke with the paper. While Mac OS X has supported Cherokee since 2003 (and is the reason why Macs are used in the tribe’s language immersion school), it was not supported in the much slimmer iPhone OS (as it was called then).

The problem was that many different ethnic groups, and even whole countries, were lobbying Apple for support of their local language in the OS, and so the Cherokees didn’t know if Apple was going to be able to accommodate them. Lobbying efforts from the tribe included a visit by Cherokee Chief Chad Smith to Cupertino to meet with Apple’s leadership.

The end result was that Apple included support for Cherokee in iOS 4.1, which was released in September, and though Apple had clearly been working on it for some time, the company didn’t tell even the tribe that support for the language was coming until shortly before the release of the iOS update.

Cherokee has its own alphabet (it’s technically a syllabary), which was designed by Sequoyah, a silversmith, in 1821. It was the first native language to have a formal, independent writing system developed for it, and it was swiftly adopted by the tribe in the early part of the 19th century.

Today, Cherokee is today spoken only by some 8,000 people, most of whom are over the age of 50. The above-mentioned language immersion school has only about 100 students, but tribe spokespeople told the AP that many members have become interested in the iPhone because of Cherokee support, including many older members who otherwise eschew technology, but use cell phones extensively.

All of this story came from tribal stories. The AP asked Apple to comment on the decision to work with the Cherokee, how much the effort cost, or whether the company planned to work with any other Native American tribes, but Apple declined comment.