When Anna Sixkiller was growing up in the Leach community, everyone around her spoke Cherokee at home, at work, at church.
"I thought everybody lived the same way we did, and talked the language," she said. She thought it would always be that way.
Anna Sixkiller, one of five women for whom Cherokee was their first language, discussed efforts to preserve it Wednesday during the 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University. All panel members grew up in rural northeastern Oklahoma communities where Cherokee predominated.
Things have changed since their youth. Today, there are only about 2,000 native Cherokee speakers left, said Cora Flute, a master Cherokee speaker. Of those, most are 70 or older. There are 240 to 265 Cherokee speakers in their 50s and 60s, and only five in their 30s and 40s. Last month, 12 speakers died; so far four have been lost in April. An average of eight die monthly.
"I didn't really think we would come to the point where we are today. It's pretty scary because we're at low numbers," Flute said.
"We are on the verge of really losing the language. At this point you can see that it's going to go, but what else are we going to do?" Anna Sixkiller said.
Many people had similar experiences to hers. When she went to school at Kansas, students were punished for speaking Cherokee by having to stay in at recess.
"We helped each other so we knew what the teacher was talking about," she recalled. When she went home, she continued to speak Cherokee with her family.
Phyllis Edwards, who grew up in Marble City, also learned to dread school.
"I cried every day because I had to go to school, because I did not understand what the teacher was saying," she said.
Her father told her she needed to stay in school to succeed, but her mother told her not to lose her language. She followed both suggestions.
Kathy Sierra was born in Bell and didn't know English when she started first grade in Muskogee. The family moved to Shady Grove when she was in seventh grade and she's been in Cherokee country ever since.
Like other panel members, Sierra regrets not teaching her children Cherokee. She has had grandchildren at the Cherokee Immersion School.
Edwards wanted to spare her children the humiliation she suffered in grade school.
"I think on my part I have failed my children because I did not want them to go through what I had to go through," she said.
While the women lament they are a part of a dying breed, of people whose first language was Cherokee, they are united in their efforts to preserve the language. Each participates in her own way.
Sierra teaches the language to Cherokee Youth Choir members, and makes sure they know the meaning of the songs they sing.
"As time goes by, I get a little braver every year. I even tried to translate - we've even translated some Motown songs," she said.
Each year, one or two of the youth choir members develop special interest in the language and continue to improve their fluency.
Sierra and the other women also participate in a language consortium with members of the United Keetoowah Band and Eastern Band. Many Cherokees from here make regular trips to North Carolina, and vice versa.
Phyilis Sixkiller used to work with infants and toddlers, from six weeks to three years.
"The results were outstanding. I didn't teach them, I just spoke to them," she said. But she fears the children lost their fluency when the program was over, if they were no longer exposed to Cherokee.
Today many children start in the immersion school at an early age. Some of the earliest immersion pupils have graduated from Sequoyah High School. Flute works with the immersion students in seventh and eighth grades, when they begin using English more in their lives, trying to maintain their proficiency. There are online courses, and courses in Cherokee communities.
And the most intense is the master speaker program, where a student apprentice spends 40 hours a week with Flute or other master speakers, conducting all their daily activities in Cherokee. It's a highly-desired program - out of 70 applicants in the last class, only four apprentices were accepted.
During a question, answer and comment period, panelists and the audience agreed many young people are hungry to learn Cherokee. It's imperative to be around fluent speakers, especially elders. It's the best way to become a fluent speaker. One 67-year-old speaker said a 17-year-old boy asked if he could live with him the past summer. He moved in, and learned as they discussed everything in Cherokee.
"I think there's a difference between learning something and understanding it," Phyllis Sixkiller said.
Commitment is the key, Edwards said. There's also a difference between just saying you'd like to speak Cherokee and putting in the effort it takes to master the language.
Some people find it hard to believe there are still people speaking Cherokee as they go about their daily lives, Sierra said.
"Cherokee still does exist, and you need to be talking your language," she told the group.
The five women are passionate about the language and culture they love.
"If you really want to speak from your heart and speak to my heart, speak in Cherokee, because I live in a Cherokee world," Phyllis Sixkiller said.