Oklahoma man hopes app will help Cherokee language

By Keith Purtell
Muskogee, Oklahoma (AP) April 2011

Harry Oohsawee hopes the latest technology will offer a new way to prevent the Cherokee language from dying off.

Oohsawee, fluent in Cherokee, contributed his voice and image to a company that specializes in applications that are intended to revitalize Native American languages.

Don Thornton, president of Thornton Media in Las Vegas, Nev., made several trips to Tahlequah to work with Oohsawee an instructor in the Cherokee Language Education Program at Northeastern State University.

The app, “Writing Cherokee 1.1,” was in development for two years before its recent release. It works on iPhone (OS 4.2 or later, 19.7 MB), iPod touch, and iPad (21.6 MB). There’s a large potential market: The 2000 U.S. Census (latest statistics) showed at least 729,533 people who were full-blood Cherokee or Cherokee mixed with another tribe.

Oohsawee said Thornton contacted him through the Cherokee Nation two years ago. The two men collaborated for about a year.

“He came from Las Vegas down to Tahlequah three or four times, and we would work in my office,” Oohsawee said. “We would work two to four hours at a time. I thought it would be a good experience.”

Oohsawee said he grew up speaking Cherokee. It’s his first language.

“I think the language is really the essence of who we are,” he said. “Most of the speakers who are left today are at least 60 years old. I’m 61. If we don’t do something, the language could be lost in 20 to 30 years.”

Oohsawee said Thornton brought audio and visual recording equipment. The resulting app uses Oohsawee’s voice and facial animation to illustrate the sounds of the Cherokee Syllabary.

“He recorded my voice so they can hear the correct pronunciation,” he said. “The animation part used part of my face and features.”

A whole generation of young Cherokees will have an opportunity to learn their native language with tools they are familiar with, Oohsawee said.

“I think this technology is the way to go,” he said. “Today’s young people are very involved with it. The only disadvantage of the app, compared to studying Cherokee in a classroom, is that you can’t ask the app a question.”

Thornton Media has announced the release of “Writing Cherokee 1.1” as “the first application that teaches how to write the Cherokee Syllabary.”

Their media release said the app consists of audio recordings of the 85-character Cherokee Syllabary, with Oohsawee as narrator. The user can play the sound of the character and see it written. Then he/she can practice writing it themselves using their finger on the iOS device touch screen.

“We make Cherokee apps for the 99.9 percent of tribal members who are not enrolled in the Cherokee immersion school,” Thornton said.