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Proud first-graders now say: Cherokee spoken here

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Their parents were mocked for speaking it. Their grandparents were punished. But for three classes at Lost City Elementary School in Oklahoma, Cherokee is the only language spoken in the classroom. Lost City is one of the first public schools in the United States to immerse students in an American Indian language.

The program started in fall 2003 with kindergarten and classes for 3-year-olds. This year the program expanded to include first grade.

"We do what other classes do but it's all in Cherokee," says Anna Christie who teaches a combined kindergarten and first-grade class at the school. Ms. Christie talks to them in Cherokee, calling the children by their Indian names. At naptime, she tells Matthew Keener or "Yo-na" (Bear) not to put his mat too close to Lane Smith "A-wi" (Deer).

Cherokee songs play softly in the room. A Cherokee calendar hangs on the wall. Students practice writing words and numbers in Cherokee. First grader Casandra Copeland, "Ji-s-du" (Rabbit), counts aloud in Cherokee.

It's called an immersion class because the children speak nothing but Cherokee. The Cherokee Nation in nearby Tahlequah, Oklahoma creates the curriculum.

"The goal is to get them fluent," says Harry Oosahwee, the tribe's language project supervisor. "If we don't do anything about it, [the language] is not going to be here for the next generation."

It is estimated that presently fewer than 8,000 of 100,000 Cherokee people speak the language and most of them are over 45 years old.

Mr. Oosahwee, who grew up speaking Cherokee as his first language, says, "I feel fortunate that I was able to communicate with my grandparents and aunts and uncles."

Now these children can talk to their parents and grandparents.

"I can talk to my grandpa," says Matthew Keener. He is also teaching his mother to speak Cherokee.

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