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Cherokee Artist Roy Boney Jr. Reflects on Steve Jobs

I received a text on my iPhone on the morning of October 6 that said, “???, ???.” It’s a simple Cherokee greeting, akin to “Hello, friend” in English. It’s pronounced “oh-see-yo, gee-na-lee.” It may not seem like much to the casual observer that has been sending and receiving texts for years, but seeing the Cherokee syllabary appear in that tiny bubble on my screen is a profound thing. And I have Steve Jobs to thank for it.

When Sequoyah developed the Cherokee syllabary, he demonstrated the communicative ability of his writing system with the assistance of his daughter ??? (“ah-yo-ka”). She was placed in a separate room, and they sent written messages back and forth to each other. The distance between them demonstrated the viability of communicating using the technology of writing, and the syllabary was adopted by the Cherokee Nation council in 1821. Sequoyah called it “talking leaves.” I like to think of this exchange as the first Cherokee text message.

On September 9, 2010, almost 190 years later, Apple released a software update for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It was met with much fanfare as is usually the case when Steve announced new products. This day, though, held special significance for me. It meant that among all the new features, my language hit the world as it never had before. True, our language was used in a variety of technologies through the years since the Cherokee printing press of the 1820s, including typewriters and even Cherokee typing software in the pre-Unicode days. But on that day, by one simple software update, literally millions of people across the world were given the ability to use the Cherokee language on one of the world’s most popular and advanced devices.

It was not an app; it was literally native to the device since our language was now a part of the operating system. One of the first Cherokee text messages sent that day was simply, “???, ???!” (Oh-see-yo, eh-lo-hi, or “Hello, world!”) As anyone that’s ever done even the smallest amount of programming knows, one of the first programs you learn to write is one that displays the text, “Hello, world!” on the screen. It was a Cherokee geek tribute to the people at Apple. Shortly thereafter, in November, the update was pushed down for the iPad. Anything that could be done in English on the devices was now doable in the Cherokee syllabary. These devices have been widely adopted in the Cherokee community since. I think Sequoyah would’ve been pleased with these digital talking leaves.

Cherokee, like many native tongues, is an endangered language. The elder fluent generation is dying out, and those of us left behind are realizing we cannot let the language die with them. Many efforts are being made in the ongoing language perpetuation struggle. Relative to the global community a company like Apple reaches, the Cherokee community is small. If one were to judge what features should be included on a device like the iPhone, the cold, hard numbers of the Cherokee population would be a strong argument against leaving out features like a Cherokee touchscreen keyboard and display font. We could’ve easily been ignored, and Apple would’ve continued raking in millions of dollars in sales.

The fact that Mr. Jobs, whose micromanaging and attention to detail was notorious, decided to include our language on his products is an amazing thing. Keeping our language relevant in the fast-moving mobile era provided a valuable tool in our effort to perpetuate our language. Apple’s support of Cherokee has even created opportunities for our language to be supported by other technology products such as Google’s search engine and Facebook. Since that day in September, I’ve literally used my language every single day.

Steve Jobs did a lot of things in his life. The media accolades and proclamations have been streaming in at a steady pace since the announcement of his death. One thing that may be lost amid the frenzy is what he did for the Cherokee language. I would ask that everyone out there that has an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod Touch, and even a Mac, which has supported our language since 2003, take a minute and honor Steve Jobs for helping create an avenue for our language to remain relevant in the lives of many modern Cherokees. It is by no means a savior for our language, but what a wonderful tool it has become. Send someone an email in the syllabary, or better yet, a text message in Cherokee. Use your language.

??????*, Steve.

*(doh-na-da-go-huh-i / “Until we see each other again.” In Cherokee there isn’t a word for “Goodbye." The implication is we will all see each other again.)