Prior to colonization, over 300 different languages were spoken by Native Americans in what is now the United States. However, almost all of these languages had one feature in common: they had no written form.
In 1809, a Cherokee named Sequoyah began work on a writing system for his country’s language. It was a monumental task, especially since he could neither read nor write in English or any other language. But 12 years later, he completed the Cherokee syllabary, an innovative writing system still used today.
Creation by Sequoyah of the Cherokee syllabary
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Although Sequoyah is one of the most important figures in the history of the Cherokee Nation, many details of his life are uncertain. It is believed that he was born between 1770 and 1778 in the town of Tuskagee, near what is now Vonore, Tennessee. The Cherokee nation is matrilineal, and through her mother, Wuh teh, Sequoyah was a member of the Red Paint Clan. He was also given the English name George Guess, or George Gist, although he spoke only Cherokee.
As an adult, Sequoyah worked as a goldsmith and blacksmith and served in the United States Army during the Creek War of 1813-1814. As a result, he spent time with Americans, observing how they used writing to learn and share information. He was determined to give the Cherokee people the same advantage. At first he attempted to create a pictographic system, in which each symbol represents a word, but realized that this would require speakers to learn thousands of symbols.
After the war, he married and signed a treaty exchanging his Cherokee land, eventually settling in Alabama. There he set out to complete his writing system. He worked so obsessively that he neglected his responsibilities at home and in the fields. His neighbors speculated that he practiced witchcraft, and his wife became so frustrated that she burned some of his papers, according to author James W. Parins. But in 1821, he finished creating his writing system in 1821, and successfully taught his first pupil: his six-year-old daughter, Ahyokah.
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Characteristics of the Cherokee syllabary
It’s not that unusual to create a new written script: JRR Tolkien created several for The Lord of the Ringsand a Klingon script was created for Star Trek (1979). But Sequoyah’s creation of the Tsalagi syllabary was remarkable, as he invented it without knowing how to read or write in other languages.
Accordingly, the Tsalagi writing system is not the use of an existing alphabet to transcribe the sounds of the Cherokee language into written form. It is designed precisely for the sounds of Cherokee. The Sequoyah syllabary contained 86 characters (later reduced to 85), which include characters composed of English, Greek and Hebrew letters, according to linguist Peter Unseth.
In an alphabet, like the Latin alphabet used for English, each symbol represents a single sound. Before the creation of the first alphabet, writing systems were generally logographic, with symbols or images that represented whole words. A syllabary is a middle ground between these two systems, with each symbol representing a separate syllable. Japanese hiragana and katakana are the most widespread and well-known syllabaries.
According to Ellen Cushman, a professor at Northeastern University and a member of the Cherokee Nation, syllabaries have an advantage over alphabets. Once a Cherokee speaker learned the 86 syllabics, they could immediately read and write, because the syllabics exactly matched the sound of the spoken words. Compare that to learning English, where you have to learn the 26-character alphabet, then learn to put these sounds together to form syllables and words. As a result, says Cushman, “within three to five years of its introduction, the tribe could read and write.” As many as 90% of Cherokee were literate by the 1830s, a much higher literacy rate than among white settlers in America.
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The Sequoyah syllabary was not only transformative for the Cherokee Nation: it also provided a model for many other new writing systems. The syllabic is used by the Cree, Ojibwa and Inuit peoples in what is now Canada, and the spread of a syllabic writing system among the Cree in the 1840s, inspired by the work of Sequoyah, led to an equally rapid explosion in literacy. Linguist and researcher Dr. Peter Unseth of Dallas International University estimated that the creation of Sequoyah influenced the development of 21 scripts on three continents and 65 languages.
Use of the syllabary
Sequoyah and her daughter Ahyokah demonstrated their syllabary to Cherokee rulers in Arkansas and North Carolina, and quickly convinced the nation of its usefulness. It began to spread rapidly, and in 1825 the Cherokee National Council officially adopted the syllabary as its writing system. Due to its intuitive characteristics, fluent Cherokee speakers could learn the syllabary within weeks and begin teaching it to others.
Missionaries saw literacy among the Cherokee as an opportunity to spread the gospel, and religious tracts as well as the Bible were quickly translated into Cherokee. The Nation has also translated legal documents, educational materials and annual almanacs into Cherokee, according to Parins. The Cherokee Constitution, adopted in 1827, was printed in Cherokee and therefore accessible to almost all members of the nation. Due in part to these early efforts, there is more literature published in Cherokee than in any other Native American language.
In 1828, the Cherokee Nation began printing a newspaper in the nation’s capital of New Echota. The Cherokee Phoenix was printed in both English and Cherokee syllabics, and provided the Cherokee with news and accounts of both tribal activities and the actions of the U.S. government, which was in the process of restricting the legal rights of the Cherokee.
Decline and revival of Cherokee literacy
The flourishing literacy and publishing among the Cherokee was disrupted in the 1830s by the violent actions of the United States government. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act to forcibly remove the Cherokee and other tribal nations from their native lands and relocate them to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. The decade was marked by increasingly brutal treatment of Native Americans, and in 1834 the Georgia Guard burned down the office of the Cherokee Phoenix. In 1838, the Cherokee were forced to trek the Trail of Tears into Indian Territory, and thousands of people died on the journey.
The decades that followed were marked by forced assimilation efforts, including the establishment of Indian boarding schools. Part of that mission was to eradicate Indigenous languages and replace them with English, while separating Indigenous children from their families and, by extension, from their languages, cultures and traditions. Cherokee, along with many other indigenous languages, declined precipitously, and by 2022 it was estimated that there were only 2,000 fluent speakers left.
However, the 20th century witnessed a revival of Cherokee language learning efforts and resources, as well as increased tribal sovereignty. In 1975, the Cherokee Nation adopted a new Constitution and resumed printing its own newspaper for the first time in over a century. That same year, Durbin Feeling, a Cherokee linguist, published the first Cherokee-English dictionary. Feeling has also taught Cherokee at universities and developed teaching materials, including digital tools. He added the syllabary to word processors in the 1980s and started the process of adding Cherokee to Unicode, which means it can be used on computers and smartphones around the world.
Today, the Cherokee Nation offers immersion programs in schools, and a number of universities offer Cherokee language programs. Each year, a group of fluent speakers from the three Cherokee tribes get together to translate new words like “blog” or “iPhone” into Cherokee.
Thanks to Sequoyah’s invention, the Cherokee people have access to a literary tradition that goes back further than any other Native American tribe. Feeling, who died in 2020, told his people, “Everyday keep speaking Cherokee. If you do this, you will be fine.