(CNN)Even before the pandemic hit, the Cherokee Nation was dealing with a crisis: the potential disappearance of its native language.
Only about 2,000 people can speak the Cherokee language fluently. And as Covid-19 began to spread, that number started to dwindle.
So when the Cherokee Nation began receiving shipments of the Covid-19 vaccine, the tribal government identified Cherokee speakers as among the first groups to be eligible for the shot.
"When you lose a speaker and you're a tribe that has only 2,000 fluent speakers left, you've lost something that isn't just irreplaceable, as all life is, but is really a national treasure," Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told CNN. "Whether they survive and whether they pass down their knowledge will help determine in a couple of generations if there is a Cherokee language left."
Vaccinating Cherokee language speakers alongside frontline health care workers is just the latest effort the tribe has made during the pandemic to keep this treasured population safe.
And in doing so, the tribe is not only protecting some of most revered citizens, but also ensuring the survival of its culture and identity.
More than 30 Cherokee speakers have died
In relative terms, the Cherokee Nation has fared much better than other tribes and many parts of the US in controlling the spread of the virus.
The tribe, with about 141,000 citizens living on its reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, has reported a total of more than 12,300 Covid-19 cases and 69 deaths as of Tuesday. More than 30 of those lost were native Cherokee speakers, according to the tribe.
"When I took office, preserving our language and revitalizing it was a high priority," Hoskin said. "In the midst of Covid, knowing what we're losing, it just tells me that that's the right priority and we need to emphasize it even more."
The first 975 doses of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine arrived in the Cherokee Nation on December 14. The next morning, the tribe started vaccinating frontline health care workers at its health complex in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Three days later, the tribe began administering the shot to Cherokee language speakers.
The Cherokee Nation already had a record of its living first language speakers, thanks to an effort Hoskin initiated in 2018 when he was the tribe's secretary of state. So its staff started contacting those listed in the speaker roll book to let them know they could now schedule an appointment to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
More than 600 speakers have been vaccinated so far, according to the tribe. The aim is to vaccinate 1,000 by the end of the week.
On January 4, the Cherokee Nation announced it was beginning vaccinations for elders aged 65 and older.
Prioritizing the vaccination of Cherokee speakers and elders has also had an unintended consequence: It has built