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Coronavirus Victims: Fluent Cherokee Speaker Edna Raper

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on Native American communities. Among those affected are speakers of an endangered native language - Cherokee.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Edna Raper was among the 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers left nationwide. She died of the coronavirus on July 4. She was 67.

SHAPIRO: Raper lived in Kenwood, Okla. Her lifelong dream was that her four children and 13 grandchildren learn Cherokee. So she came up with all sorts of ways to introduce them to the language.

CORNISH: For instance, singing lullabies to them in Cherokee.

SARAH PICKUP: (Singing in Cherokee).

SHAPIRO: Here's Raper's daughter Sarah Pickup.

PICKUP: She babysat both of my little girls, so any time it was naptime or bedtime, she was just - she'd started singing in Cherokee. And that's how she'd put them to sleep.

(Singing in Cherokee).

CORNISH: Raper worked with children for more than 30 years. She was an office secretary at Kenwood Public School.

SHAPIRO: Pickup says after retiring, Raper devoted her life to giving back. Every morning, she got into her silver Chevy Malibu and helped people without transportation get to where they needed to be.

PICKUP: She was always on the road. She would, like, take them to doctor's appointments or go get their groceries. Just anybody in the community that needed help, she did all the running around for them and, of course, for all of us kids, too. She picked our kids up from school or took them to practices - wherever they needed to go.

CORNISH: Her family thinks Raper caught the infection at a church gathering. Her condition quickly deteriorated. In solitude at the hospital, she found strength in her Christian faith, says Pickup.

PICKUP: Her last message to me on my phone that I have is that - she said, I am not alone. She said, God never leaves us or forsakes us.

SHAPIRO: Raper's granddaughter Madison Gardner says she wants to honor her grandmother's legacy of faith and Cherokee pride. She says it's now on her to teach the next generation Cherokee.

MADISON GARDNER: (Singing in Cherokee).

She's a really honest and wise woman, so she taught me a lot. And hopefully, I get to teach my kids and my nieces and nephews as much as she has taught me.

(Singing in Cherokee).

CORNISH: Edna Raper died on July 4 in Tulsa, Okla. She was 67 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "THE QUIET AT NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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