LOST CITY, Okla. — The kindergarten teacher speaks to her class in Cherokee, telling the children to pull out their mats for nap time. Using their Cherokee names, she instructs "Yo-na," or Bear, to place his mat away from "A-wi," or Deer. Soft Cherokee music lulls them to sleep.
These youngsters' parents were mocked for speaking Cherokee. Their grandparents were punished. But Cherokee is the only language these children will speak in their public school classroom.
By immersing the youngsters in the language of their ancestors, tribal leaders are hoping to save one of the many endangered American Indian tongues.
It is a modest start, consisting of just 10 kindergartners in a single classroom at the Lost City School, 50 miles east of Tulsa. But their Cherokee language instruction will continue throughout their school years.
"The language is going to be gone if we don't do something, and the best people to learn are kids in the developmental stage of kindergarten," said Annette Millard, a non-Cherokee who is superintendent of the Lost City School, with about 100 students, two-thirds of them from the tribe.
Around the country, other Indian languages are disappearing as well. The native speakers are dying off, and the language cannot compete against English, which is pervasive through television and other forms of pop culture.
While many tribes are trying to reinvigorate their languages, doing so can be particularly difficult in places like Oklahoma, where Indians generally attend public schools and do not live on reservations.
On the vast Navajo reservation in the Southwest, for example, the Navajo language is taught on reservation schools and most tribal members speak it. In Oklahoma, fewer than 8,000 of the 100,000 Cherokees can speak the language fluently, and most of those who can are over 45.
In fact, assimilation policies once discouraged Cherokees from speaking their native language in schools.
The father of Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith was punished for speaking Cherokee at Sequoyah High School, located at the seat of Cherokee government in Tahlequah.
"If you spoke the language, your mouth was washed out with soap," Smith said. "It was an effort to destroy the language and it was fairly successful."
In Lost City, Millard offered a classroom — and started learning the language along with her staff — after hearing a plea from the chief. The Cherokee Nation is paying the salaries of the teacher and an assistant.
The school has a weekly "Rise and Shine" assembly where all grades begin with the greeting "o-si-yo" and discuss the word for the week. One recent week, the word was truthfulness, or "du-yu-go-dv."
Millard calls students by their Cherokee names and encourages them by saying "o-sta" — "good" — with a smile. Her office is adorned with Cherokee words and pronunciations posted on objects like the telephone and her desk chair. (The Cherokee alphabet, consisting of 85 symbols, each representing a syllable, was codified by Sequoyah in 1821.)
The children are encouraged to speak Cherokee at home.
After five weeks of school, Lane Smith, or "A-wi," told his mother in Cherokee that he was going outside to play. She was not quite sure what he said, but she is now starting to relearn the language she knew at age 5.
"My family has asked Lane what he has learned today and they are learning right along with him," said Kristal Smith, who is not related to the Cherokee chief. "I plan to have him keep going with the language."
Tribal leaders say it is vital that the language survive.
"We have our medicine, our plant life, our universe and the language the creator has given us," said Harry Oosahwee, the tribe's language projects supervisor.
"Our medicine doesn't understand other languages but Cherokee. All this is interconnected."