The Cherokee Syllabary: Tenacity and Advancement through Writing
By Eitan '22
Twelve thousand years ago, the ancestors to what would become the native peoples of the Americas crossed over on a land bridge from Asia. Over the following millennia, they expanded across the continent, gradually separating into smaller groups that went on to develop their own unique cultures (Conley 48-54). One of these cultures was the Cherokee tribe. When the Europeans first arrived, the tribe ranged over a massive area in what is now the southern United States. Their territory was further split among numerous villages, each controlled by complex social and governmental systems (Conley 144-158), and playing host to a vibrant culture with an expansive tradition of legends, art, and more. While their initial contact with Europeans was trade-focused and relatively peaceful, it was not long before the settlers began taking advantage of them, as with the other tribes of America. Their culture was steadily replaced with that of the invaders, and they were forcibly removed from their land through what were in many cases underhanded techniques such as intimidation and bribery (Howe 348). Unlike the other tribes, though, the Cherokee had access to a tool that would prove instrumental to their survival and continued advancement—the Cherokee syllabary. A wholly unique writing system developed specially for the Cherokee people by a Cherokee named Sequoyah, also known by his English name of George Guest or Guess, the syllabary facilitated the preservation of Cherokee language and culture in a brand new way. Not only was it a tremendous source of national pride for them and a symbol of resistance against cultural assimilation, but it advanced Cherokee culture in a way that was completely theirs, free of white European influence. It contributed greatly to both the persistence and elevation of the Cherokee Nation, and would prove essential, especially in the face of the many threats posed to them. As Rose Gubele, an associate professor at the University of Central Missouri and member of the Cherokee Nation states, "Ultimately, the Truth is that Sequoyah and his gift, the syllabary, have helped us to survive" (Gubele 69-70).
At the time of the syllabary's creation, the Cherokee had long been caught up in a complex relationship with the European settlers. Trade relations between the two were first established in the mid-to-late 17th century, and for a time the Cherokee prospered with the aid of their new commercial partners. They took up agriculture and constructed new, permanent tribal settlements (Conley 472). Sequoyah himself lived in one of these, in what is today Sallisaw, Oklahoma, making his home in a European-style log cabin of his own construction. With this and their new access to schooling, farming, and technologies such as plows, mills, looms and more, the Cherokee standard of living increased as they modernized—and Westernized. European technologies and cultural aspects began to supplant traditional Cherokee culture, causing many traditions to begin to fade (Conley 1078). Along with this, the settlers began to take advantage of the tribe, nudging them into war against other tribes and then trading guns to both sides in exchange for prisoners of war, whom they would then sell into slavery (Conley 522).
The tumultuous association between the Europeans and the Cherokee would continue to develop in the years leading up to the syllabary's introduction, and as it did, the threat of cultural assimilation would increase. White people married into the tribe, creating a large mixed-blood population, and brought with them the increased presence of Christianity and Western values intended to "civilize" what they saw as a "savage" people. Some Cherokee, mainly mixed-bloods, even acquired slaves and entered into the cotton-plantation business (Howe 343). Still, even as the tribe became more "civilized" and more and more culturally similar to that of the whites, the settlers did not much change their negative attitudes towards them. Rather, as the threat of removal became more and more imminent and the more privileged of the Cherokee worked to defend their land, the whites perceived them as even more of a threat to their dominance and encroached even further on their territory (Howe 343). Unfair treaties, threats by the American government and military, and bribes offered to local chiefs all posed a danger to the Cherokees' hold on their native lands, and increased European influence posed a danger to the future of their culture. The time that the syllabary came into use was one of great change for the Cherokee, and it arrived at the perfect time to serve as a tool of advancement and nationalism. Its creation and spread were not simple processes, however, and tell an important story of cultural advancement in their own right.
As crucial as that story is, though, it is by no means concrete. Most of the information modern scholars have on Sequoyah is based on hearsay, and there exist numerous conflicting accounts of how the syllabary originated. As Gubele puts it, "Ironically one of the few facts upon which all Sequoyah biographers agree is that the details of Sequoyah’s life are difficult to discern" (Gubele 52). Even his English name is not consistent across accounts, and he is called Guess, Guest, Gist, Guyst, and more across various sources. Generally agreed-upon is that he was a skilled, intelligent polymath, inventor, painter, and silversmith, born around 1770 in the village of Tuskegee, Tennessee, and that he had no knowledge whatsoever of any language other than Cherokee (Foreman 3). What is not agreed upon is how the creation of the syllabary began. It's possible that the idea entered his mind in any number of ways. Some popular possibilities include a conversation with friends about the "talking leaves" of the white man (Foreman 20), a realization that a writing system could be applied to Cherokee after a nephew learned to read and write English at a missionary school (Foreman 47), or simply that the idea was sparked by seeing English letters on the body of a white man (Gubele 58). A fourth story, and perhaps the most intriguing one, tells of an ancient Cherokee priesthood called the Ani-Kutani, who ruled over the tribe with the aid of a writing system until they became corrupt and were destroyed in an uprising. In this version, Sequoyah was said to be a descendant of the Ani-Kutani, not actually having invented the syllabary, but instead simply being the one to reintroduce it to the tribe (Gubele 62). While it's very unlikely that Sequoyah had no part in the actual creation of the syllabary, as this last story suggests, there do exist accounts that seem to indicate that the Cherokee did in fact have an ancient writing system, or at least something close to one. One such account was told to an Englishman named Alexander Long in 1717—"we are told by our ancestors that when we first came on this land that the priests and beloved men was [sic] writing but not on paper as you do but on white deer skins and on the shoulder bones of buffalo" (Conley 388). Still, whether or not Sequoyah's syllabary was in fact that of the Ani-Kutani, the potential that it might have been was enough to contribute to the initial popular distrust of it (Gubele 62), and as he set out on the long journey to perfect it for his people, he was not initially met with enthusiasm.
The development of the syllabary into its modern form took twelve long years of hard work (Foreman 4), but once it was put into use, it did not take long for that work to pay off. Sequoyah was faced by numerous challenges along the long road to Cherokee literacy, one of the first being the tribe's complete distrust of the idea of a writing system for the language. His countrymen saw what he was doing as black magic or witchcraft and shunned him, fearful of the potential that he might be bringing forbidden Ani-Kutani power back into the world (Gubele 60-62). He was undeterred, however, and continued to persevere, in a similar manner to what his final product would eventually help his people do. His next roadblock was realizing the impracticality of his initial plan, which was not to make a syllabary, but instead a system in which each word would be represented by a character. Even the loss of so much progress was not enough to discourage him, and he swiftly began work on what would become the syllabary. Through painstaking effort, he, with the help of his daughter A-Yo-Ka, recorded each syllable in the language and assigned them distinct, simply drawn and read symbols. Though he initially had 200, he and A-Yo-Ka were able to bring that number down to the modern count of 85 (Foreman 23). After that came his biggest challenge yet—convincing the rest of the tribe that the syllabary was worthwhile. Throughout the entire creation process, the tribe had venomously opposed him, seeing the syllabary as something inherently spiritual and difficult to trust. Despite attempts to make them understand it as an intellectual endeavor, Sequoyah was eventually forced to go along with their thought process to even be comprehended properly (Gubele 61). This still left the problem of convincing them of its actual usefulness. Before a panel of high-ranking Cherokee, he displayed that A-Yo-Ka, at the time still his only student, could read a sentence put down by him while she was in another room. Impressed, the tribe agreed to test its utility using a group of youths who were taught the syllabary, and upon the success of this realized its true worth (Foreman 25-26). Sequoyah received high honors from the tribe, quickly becoming one of its most respected members. The tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, would later describe that "This astonishing discovery certainly entitles Mr. Guess to the warmest gratitude of his country; and, should the Cherokee language continue to be spoken, his fame will be handed down to the latest posterity." The syllabary spread quickly, and within a few years nearly the entire nation was fluent in it (Foreman 28). Though he was faced with opposition from practically every side, Sequoyah stood strong as a beacon of cultural pride and advancement and in the end was able to share those with his people. His quest to create a writing system for his native tongue was a shining display of cultural perseverance, one that would set the stage for even more in the near future.
The most immediate example of that was the speed at which the syllabary spread, which was not merely because of enthusiasm for learning. Having been made by someone intimately familiar with the workings of the language it was created for, it was perfectly suited to express its intricacies. Firstly, the nature of the syllabary greatly simplified the learning process for anybody who already spoke the language. In contrast to an alphabet, where different letters can be used in many different ways, the characters of the syllabary each exactly correspond to a syllable in the Cherokee language and are never used differently, making it very intuitive to students (Cushman 69). There was more to it than this, however. As a polysynthetic language, Cherokee benefited greatly from having a writing system that was able to easily convey the many syllabic morphemes, or small meaningful units, present in its words, which often could represent entire sentences (Cushman 67). This meant that, at times, Sequoyah's writing system is more than just a syllabary, and, as Ellen Cushman's research suggests, individual characters often represent an implicit meaning as well as their sound. This further contributes to the ease of learning to read and write, and also helps preserve elements of the traditional Cherokee worldview, as it is possible for symbols to become associated with and convey a specific idea or concept (Cushman 58-59). Even something as minor as the order in which the handwritten syllabary was arranged was a carefully considered tool for preservation. Ellen Cushman determined that each symbol was based off of one of seven root forms. The language itself constructs its meaning through continually added ideas to base ideas, and the syllabary does a similar thing, adding additional details to individual root forms to create new characters. In the original arrangement, each syllable was carefully placed next to the root form that it was constructed from. When using this arrangement to learn to read and write, a student would have been able to notice the patterns and use them to more easily commit the syllabary to memory, thus helping to preserve the language and the culture it represented (Cushman 77). All of these elements contributed to the fast spread that helped make the syllabary the crucial cultural tool that it was. If it had not been so simple and well-suited to the language, it might not have been able to survive the opposition from whites it was confronted with.
As Cherokees eagerly learned and taught the syllabary, many whites, especially missionaries, looked on it with disdain, but ultimately could not halt its influence. Of course there were some European scholars who recognized it as a stunning achievement, such as French polymath Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who even wrote to the Cherokee Phoenix asking for copies he could send to Europe to maintain and study, but the majority were barely even able to conceptualize that it wasn't an alphabet. They saw it as inferior to alphabetic systems, which were generally considered to be "true writing" (Cushman 14). In fact, the first writing system for the Cherokee language had been an English-based alphabetic one using Roman letters, devised by a white missionary named John Pickering. It had been intended to serve as the tribe's introduction to the written word and eventually facilitate a language shift to English (Cushman 104), and in fact was far easier for English speakers to learn, a great help especially considering the difficulty of learning Cherokee from English. The syllabary was its complete opposite in both structure and effect. It made the Cherokee language more inaccessible to the missionaries, even as native speakers picked it up near-effortlessly, and certainly did not facilitate a language shift (Gubele 55-56). Although the missionaries continued to complain, arguing that there was no future to be had with the Cherokee language, and that the tribe would be, as the Missionary Herald newspaper put it, "deprived, in great measure, of an acquaintance with the many excellent works in the English language…" (Cushman 104-105), in the end Sequoyah's syllabary was simply too popular and easily-adopted, and they were forced to give in. This represented a tremendous victory and a turning point for the Cherokee. Here was a people elevating their own society through only the force of their own desire to, with a tool completely of Cherokee design, and in spite of white attempts to undermine them and take from them an integral part of their own culture—their language. As written by Samuel L. Knapp, an author who interviewed many Cherokee in the first half of the nineteenth century, "That a mass of people, without schools or books, should by mutual assistance, without extraneous impulse or aid, acquire the art of reading, and that in a character wholly original, is, I believe, a phenomenon unexampled in modern times" (Foreman 29). The missionaries did, however, unfortunately succeed in supplanting Sequoyah's original arrangement with one of their own, which ignored the base root forms and grouped the symbols based on similar sounds and from there alphabetically in an English-based approach. According to Cushman, it also would have placed a large degree of importance on the individual sounds of the syllabary, and as a result given less attention to the inherent meaning contained within many syllables (Cushman 42). Still, the tribe had succeeded in bringing the syllabary to the forefront, an act of supreme cultural defiance. It would go on to have a massive impact on their culture, and one driven by their own innovation.
New doors were opened for the tribe, allowing them to preserve and express their culture in ways never before imaginable. In the first place, they had never truly had a way to record their extensive oral traditions. Previously, they would only be passed down through word-of-mouth, and suffer potentially being misunderstood or forgotten through simple human error, but now they had a way of writing them for posterity so that they would be far more likely to persist. Traditional incantations, legends, recipes, and many other things were all recorded, and aspects of Cherokee culture that otherwise might have been forgotten were preserved (Gubele 66-67). It is true that the missionaries, after realizing the futility of continuing with Pickering's system, would translate Christian texts into the syllabary to assist in converting the Cherokee to Christianity (Gubele 57), but far more important was its direct advancement of tribal culture. Along with preserving traditions, it also enabled the tribe to take a step forward in a more modern way that nevertheless still confidently embodied their culture—the very first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. First published in 1828, it contained articles written in English side-by-side with the same content in Sequoyah's Cherokee syllabary (Foreman 14). For the first time, the tribe had an easily-accessible modern avenue of information that was theirs and theirs alone. They could read news about the world around them and receive messages from tribal leadership in their own native language. It was a symbol of both their national pride and the great achievement that was the syllabary. In a time when the US government was trying its hardest to quash the culture of Native Americans and remove them from their ancestral lands, the syllabary provided a foothold for the Cherokee, allowing them to preserve, advance, and express their culture in new, modern ways, and even today it gives the Cherokee a unique place in the world.
In the modern day, despite having a far lower speaker base than it did in centuries past, the Cherokee language, and the syllabary, remain important to the tribe's national pride and culture. The syllabary was an innovation that helped the tribe modernize, with advancements like the ability to print the language, and the Cherokee have continued to honor and make use of it. Countless texts in the syllabary were produced throughout both the nineteenth century and the twentieth, serving all of the purposes that written language serves in the everyday lives of any other culture (Cushman 167). Churches were an especially powerful example, using Cherokee-language religious texts and recording meetings and sermons in the syllabary (Cushman 171). Even so, the language would certainly have been in danger of dying out completely if not for the Nation's efforts to keep it alive. Cherokee-language courses began to be offered at various colleges (Conley 3476), and around the Nation and other Cherokee communities as well (Conley 4078). A Cherokee immersion school was created in 2001, in order to help increase the young speaker base (Cushman 192). The Nation has also taken full advantage of the technology of today through online language classes, which are easily accessible through their website from anywhere in the world (Cushman 207). Through all of these, including the multitudes of printed learning material, the syllabary is featured heavily. The Cherokee immersion school places special emphasis on teaching it (Cushman 192), and it's prominent in all of the online material. Even comic strips such as Blondie and Beetle Bailey found themselves translated into Sequoyah's characters for use with education, a prime example of its modernization (Cushman 156). The syllabary is a key part of both their language and their identity, and the Cherokee Nation is making sure that it will not be forgotten.
Since its creation, the Cherokee syllabary has been very beneficial to the tribe. It provided them with a writing system that perfectly captured their language, served as a tremendous cultural victory over oppressive white missionaries who sought to move them away from their native language, and allowed them entry into the modern world in a way that was completely theirs. As a great source of national pride, it granted the tribe a much-needed boost during a time when they were surrounded by threats to their native culture. Without the syllabary, the tribe may have lost countless traditions that it enabled them to write down, and they certainly would not have been able to create the Cherokee Phoenix, which still exists today. With the advent of numerous learning materials focused on the syllabary in the modern day, it is safe to say that the tribe would not be where it is today if it had never received Sequoyah's great gift. It is thanks to him that Cherokee culture has been preserved and has advanced in the ways that it has.
- Conley, Robert J. The Cherokee Nation: A History. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
- Cushman, Ellen. Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People's Perseverance. American Indian Literature and Critical Studies 56. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
- Foreman, Grant. Sequoyah. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
- Gubele, Rose. "Utalotsa Woni—'Talking Leaves': A Re-examination of the Cherokee Syllabary and Sequoyah." Studies in American Indian Literatures 24, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 47-76.
- Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.