A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Can a newly installed cellphone tower help preserve a language? Well, that's the hope of Cherokee Nation leaders in Oklahoma. Families can make reliable calls and send texts thanks to a nearly 360-foot-tall tower. Elizabeth Caldwell from member station KWGS reports on the significance of connectivity.
ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: It's lunchtime in Kenwood, Okla., a tiny community of about 1,000 people on the Cherokee Nation Reservation. It's pretty far off the beaten path. In the community center, two women are serving soup and sandwiches.
GLADYS STALLER: It's for the elders to get together here. And we serve lunch. And they just visit each other. And this is Debbie. We're the cooks here.
DEBBIE OFIELD: You want to eat?
CALDWELL: Gladys Staller and Debbie Ofield have lived in Kenwood for a long time. Today is a big day. This remote community gets a cellphone tower. Until now, Gladys says people had to connect to weak Wi-Fi at a certain spot by the community center.
STALLER: They sit outside underneath that pole and make calls.
CALDWELL: People would also drive up nearby hills hunting for bars, but not anymore.
MARILYNN MALERBA: I send you all many, many blessings and much success in everything else that you are looking to do with these funds.
CHUCK HOSKIN JR: All right. Wado, Treasurer Chief. Take care. Bye-bye.
MALERBA: My pleasure. Bye-bye.
HOSKIN: All right. Crystal clear.
CALDWELL: That's the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr. He's standing next to the cellphone tower in a field littered with cow patties. He just got off the phone with the U.S. treasurer, Marilynn Malerba. American Rescue Plan money paid for the AT&T Tower, and Hoskin wanted to thank Malerba. He says reliable cell service might entice young people to stay put.
HOSKIN: You have to have a community in which elders and young people are sharing the community, and the communities aren't dying on the vine.
CALDWELL: For 21-year-old Gracie Scott, who lives with her grandmother, it's exciting to be better connected. She thinks the tower will be a big help in making Kenwood a better place for everyone.
GRACIE SCOTT: You know, having service through here - there's a lot of like mail delivery drivers that, you know, get lost, and now they can use their GPSes, you know, and just people finding their way through here and being able to get a hold of people as you're through here and not thinking, oh, my gosh, when am I going to get service again, you know?
CALDWELL: Now Kenwood residents have reliable 911 service and can do telemedicine in some cases. Dawnena Squirrel lives here, too, and hopes the new cell tower will spread the Cherokee language by connecting Native speakers anywhere.
DAWNENA SQUIRREL: To see it as a reality today is incredible. And I think this will allow us to do a lot of online classes and even teach classes from here.
CALDWELL: In the meantime, Dawnena says she's just going to enjoy the simple pleasure of making a phone call, which she has not done yet. But she knows who she'll call.
SQUIRREL: Oh, my gosh. You know, I could call my guy, my boyfriend. He makes traditional Cherokee stickball sticks. And so he's over in another community. So I may call him and say, hey, we're online.
CALDWELL: And they will no longer have to sit by a pole or drive around to make a phone call. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Kenwood, Okla.
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