Cherokee translator Sixkiller lives her language

A portrait of Anna Sixkiller by Keli Gonzales. 

KANSAS, Okla. – A fluent Cherokee speaker and longtime translator, Anna Sixkiller has become a caretaker for the language she holds dear.

“That is my language. It’s my first language,” said Sixkiller, a Cherokee National Treasure since 1991. “It’s what I work with every day. I really think about a lot of things when I translate something – who’s going to be looking at it and how they’re going to look at it, how they’re going to feel, what they’re going to say. I want to put the right words in there so they can understand.”

For more than two decades, Sixkiller, 75, of Kansas, Oklahoma, has helped translate the language for the Cherokee Nation and its immersion school, museums, universities, libraries, hospitals, the Cherokee Phoenix and even large tech empires such as Microsoft.

Her early years growing up in Delaware County’s Leach community were spent speaking only Cherokee in her household. It wasn’t until her school years began that learning English became a necessity, she noted.

“I didn’t know a word of English,” Sixkiller said. “So I had a hard time learning, got in trouble, spankings, this and that, because I didn’t understand what the teachers were saying. I wasn’t the only one. There was a bunch of us.”

Sixkiller and her Cherokee-speaking peers were often kept inside during recess to learn English, she said.

“We started teaching each other,” she said. “Some of us would have a word here and there to understand the English language and we would help each other. That’s how we learned. We began to understand what the teacher was saying. After that, we enjoyed going to school.”

A young Sixkiller was motivated by her mother’s bedtime stories to pursue reading and writing the Cherokee language.

“When Mama told the stories, it was stories from a Bible all written in Cherokee,” Sixkiller said. “She would tell the story and it would sound so good, and then I’d think, man, it’s in this little book but I can’t even read one word. That’s really what motivated me to want to learn so I could read those stories myself.”

As an adult, Sixkiller learned those skills “pretty fast” and honed her mastery of the language under the tutelage of the late Cherokee linguist Durbin Feeling.

“Durbin had a big part in my life,” she said. “He had a class and I thought I’m going to go and start something, you know. So he gave me a teaching certificate and I thought, I can do this. I wanted to be able to do something with our language. So I worked through Cherokee Nation and I taught adults. When I was working for adult education, I went out into the communities and taught the language for years. There are many readers and writers now that I’ve taught.”

Sixkiller later worked with the Cherokee Heritage Center for 17 years, then eventually took a language-related job in 2000 at the CN once again.

“This coming April will be 21 years since I started working there and I love it,” she said. “I like working with the language. This is every day.”

A memorable project, Sixkiller said, was helping translate the Windows operating system into Cherokee, a project that was completed in 2012.

“Every word you see on the computer when you open it, we translated everything,” she said. “So the boys opened up that Windows 8 and everything was in Cherokee. We all started bawling because it was so overwhelming, I guess, to see a computer that we translated. It was a good feeling.”