Sequoyah’s Cherokee Syllabary – an endangered indigenous language



      The Cherokee language has endured, in spite of the trauma to which colonists and the U.S. government subjected its speakers. This is in large part due to Sequoyah, Cherokee silversmith and scholar, who gave the Cherokee people a writing system in the early 19th century.  The Cherokee syllabary is composed of eighty-five symbols, each one representing a syllable.  This system was completed in 1821, after twelve years of work and is the only written language ever developed by one person.

     The original form of the syllabary, as designed by Sequoyah, was in cursive symbols.  In order to print the language it was necessary to cast typeface in lead, employing characters adapted from the Roman alphabet.  The creation of the typeface led to the printing, beginning in 1828, of the Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ), a bilingual Cherokee–English newspaper. The paper was printed until 1835 at New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, in what is now North Georgia.  In that year the Georgia Guard confiscated the paper’s printing press and burned its office down.  The forced Removal of the Cherokee people from their homeland had begun with the destruction of their capital and the symbols of their culture and language.

     Cherokee, like hundreds of indigenous languages around the world, is endangered. A survey begun by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation in 2005 identified 460 fluent speakers living in Cherokee communities, and 72 percent of them were over 50 years old.  In ten years the number of fluent speakers in western North Carolina has diminished by over half.  There are approximately 200 fluent speakers now.                       

     Much more than words is lost when a language dies.  Language, the spoken expression of thought, reflects the culture of the speaker in subtle ways.   Native American languages derive from a distinct worldview and cosmology, one that did not evolve from a Judeo-Christian heritage.  Many expressions and words in one language can never be translated exactly into another.  The loss of Native American languages and culture is due in large part to forced assimilation, especially the brutal punishment inflicted on Native children in Indian Boarding Schools.  My grandparents were sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and were stripped of their culture and language in cruel ways.  As a result, neither of them spoke the language to their children, to protect them from similar punishment and ridicule.

     In recent years the Eastern Band of Cherokee, in partnership with the Cherokee Studies Department at Western Carolina University, has made a concerted effort on behalf of the written and spoken language. The Cherokee Language Revitalization Project supports the teaching of Cherokee at WCU and on the Qualla Boundary, the present day home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.