Editor's note: The Cherokee Phoenix is running a six-part series on the Cherokee Nation Translation Specialists. Cherokee Nation translation specialists are Dennis Sixkiller, Anna Sixkiller, David Pettit, Durbin Feeling, John Ross and Phyllis Edwards. The stories will run every other day.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- Cherokee speaker and translator John Ross is focused and determined to do his part in preserving the Cherokee language.

Ross, 56, originally of the Greasy Community in Adair County, is one of six translation specialists in the Cherokee Nation's translation department where documents, signs, books and other printed items are translated from English into Cherokee.

Ross said his main task is translating three books a month for Cherokee Immersion School students. "That's our priority. Then we work with all the departments in the Cherokee Nation. We translate words and phrases, and we do about 30 translations a month."

The department also translates three to four articles from English into Cherokee for the Cherokee Phoenix each month, and coordinates the Cherokee language proficiency test for employees wanting to be recognized for their language knowledge. He said about 100 employees have taken the proficiency test.

"It makes you feel good about our language. As a Cherokee speaker, I like to see more people learning the language and also come in here and talk to us. That's what we are here for, to try to promote the language," he said.

Ross said during a busy week 30 or more people, employees and community members will come to the translation department needing help with a word or reading a document written in Cherokee. The translators also get phone calls from people out of state wanting help with translating phrases, words and even prayers.

"There's stories that they have that have been passed down, and they want it translated," Ross said. "It makes you feel good when you help people like that."

Translating for people and programs keeps him "on his toes" and his translation skills sharp.

"It sharpens your language and writing skills. It just helps you all around to be able to translate," he said. "Like we say here, 'not everybody that speaks the language can be a translator.' It's a gift, I believe. If they work at it, I think they become translators too, but it's not easy."

The translation staff is also part of the Cherokee Speakers Bureau -- a group of about 50 Cherokee speakers from area communities that meet once a month in Tahlequah to discuss Cherokee words, translate English words into Cherokee and fellowship. The bureau is also part of a larger group consisting of Cherokee speakers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Ross said the most rewarding experience he's had is translating historic documents written in Cherokee. Some are located at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. And sometimes while translating historic documents, he finds Cherokee words that are no longer used. Ross said the translation department is beginning to use those "lost" words again, and a found word may be one less word the translation group and Cherokee Speakers Bureau has to create.

"We're finding a lot of names or towns or communities. They (ancestors) used these words, and now they are all coming back," he said.

Ross handles historic documents perhaps hundreds of years old while embracing the latest technology that helps him do his job. The translators use Apple iPhones and iPads and computers with the Cherokee syllabary. He said the staff uses iPads to send emails in the syllabary to other Cherokee language users.

"That's pretty neat. This is going to be the future I believe," he said.

Despite the efforts being put toward preserving the Cherokee language, the language's survival still seems uncertain. Ross said his generation is the last generation that speaks the language in everyday conversations.

He said his generation learned Cherokee from their parents. Cherokee after his generation did not for various reasons, and most of the next generation of speakers will likely come from the Immersion School.

"We have over 100 children learning the Cherokee language. It's so wonderful when we go visit them, and we do that a lot. To converse with our kids in our own language is a wonderful thing," he said.

He said five years ago that was not possible because only his generation spoke the language. He said he believes more parents today are interested in their children learning the language.

"Our culture is better off if we speak the language," he said. "If we continue our immersion school the way it is now, then I don't think we have to worry about our language dying out. A lot of people say our language is dying out, but here's an example of our kids showing us, if we teach them, they will learn."

will-chavez@cherokee.org
918-207-3961