Two hundred years ago, the brilliant statesman and inventor Sequoyah presented the Cherokee syllabary to the Cherokee Nation. This year we are honoring the bicentennial of Sequoyah’s historic achievement that brought widespread literacy to our tribe.
We remember him through the gift of our language, but few specifics are known about Sequoyah’s life. History tells us that he first began working on his syllabary writing system in 1809. At times his work was misunderstood as witchcraft. Even his family was said to grow weary of his obsessive work on the syllabary. Despite these obstacles, Sequoyah pressed doggedly forward with the help of his young daughter.
After 12 years, he perfected a system for reading and writing the Cherokee language. In 1821, he demonstrated his invention to a skeptical Cherokee audience. He won them over by writing messages to his daughter using the syllabary and having her respond back in kind.
The Cherokee Nation quickly adopted Sequoyah’s syllabary as our official written language. By 1825, much of the Bible, numerous hymns and other literature had been translated into Cherokee. The new system was so easy for Cherokee speakers to learn that Cherokee Nation soon achieved one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
The Cherokee National Council purchased a printing press and commissioned a set of Cherokee type, paving the way for publication of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first bilingual Native American newspaper. The Phoenix was published for Cherokees but also widely read across the neighboring U.S. and in Europe. Religious pamphlets, educational materials and legal documents, including Cherokee laws, were now being printed in Cherokee syllabary.
Since that time, the syllabary has continued to advance with technology. From a handwritten system, it has now evolved in the digital era to inhabit computers, smart phones and social media platforms.
We trust that Sequoyah would be very proud to see the Cherokee syllabary is still in everyday use. Today we are executing extensive plans to preserve and expand our language. We recently announced the Durbin Feeling Language Act, a $16 million investment that quadruples the Cherokee Language Master-Apprentice Program (CLMAP) and establishes a language hub in the former Cherokee Casino Tahlequah. The site, which will open by the end of this year, will house CLMAP, the Cherokee Immersion School and the Cherokee Translation Department under one roof.
In the coming year, multiple events are planned through the newly established Cherokee Nation Advisory Committee on History and Culture. The committee’s mission is to ensure that Cherokee art, history and culture are presented in an authentic way. Through these efforts, our own people can better appreciate our remarkable culture and preserve it for future generations.
You can look forward to programming that highlights Sequoyah and the syllabary through original exhibits in all Cherokee Nation museums and via video and online content. The Cherokee Language Department will work closely with Cherokee Nation’s Cultural Tourism Department and our communications team to bring these exciting programs to you. As events are scheduled in 2021, we’ll share that information with you.
The future of our language has never looked brighter, and I’m very excited about what we will be sharing with you in the coming months.
Visit https://language.cherokee.org for more language resources.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.