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The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance—Book Review

It was the great Sequoyah (ca. 1770–1843) who invented the Cherokee syllabary, thereby making reading and writing in that language possible. He labored on his creation for years while his peers derided his efforts, some going so far as to denounce it as witchcraft.

However, once Sequoyah proved the viability of his system by demonstrating it in action with his daughter Ayoka, the Cherokees embraced his “talking leaves” and became literate almost overnight. In its own way, the tale is as mythic as the story of Cadmus bringing the alphabet to the Greeks.

But the actual history of the Cherokee syllabary is more amazing than any myth could ever be. Ellen Cushman’s book The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) examines Sequoyah and the continued use of his groundbreaking writing system among the Cherokee into the modern era.

Cushman, a Cherokee Nation citizen, writes in her preface about the questions generated by a poster of the Cherokee syllabary chart that hangs in her office. Visitors ask, “Why so many characters? How is this learned? Why these shapes? Where can I find samples of writing in Sequoyan? Is it even still used? What does it all mean?”

Cushman, wondering herself, set out to answer these and other queries. Her first few chapters detail the story of Sequoyah and how the writing system evolved from handwritten script to the printing press. Then the author delves into the deeper meaning of the syllabary itself. In theorizing about how the original handwritten script may have had many linguistic meanings built into its very shapes, she actually strips down the syllables digitally to their core shapes and creates a table comparing them. All this makes for a fascinating discussion.

The narrative then flows into how the script was later adapted to the printing press. Cushman notes that despite the influence of missionary groups, the final product was not informed by the English alphabet, even though some Cherokee syllables ended up resembling English alphabetic shapes. It was a Cherokee product from start to finish.

Later chapters provide a fine chronology of the writing system, from post–Trail of Tears removal, to the Civil War, through the Reconstruction era, to Oklahoma statehood, through tribal termination policies and into the digital age. Cushman shows how the syllabary served as a common thread among the Cherokee, demonstrating that despite all the setbacks they experienced, the syllabary bound them together. The knowledge of the people was held in their writing system, and it was in that writing that the Cherokees’ collective story was saved, one page at a time.

The Cherokee Syllabary raises many issues that need further inquiry, particularly regarding the evolution of the syllable set during its development. Cushman’s volume also offers a brief discussion about the syllabary’s relevance in the digital era. Ideally, the author’s investigation would invite additional scholarly inquiry into the Cherokee writing system.

Altogether, this is a very informed chronology of the Cherokee syllabary and a comprehensive overview of Cherokee literacy. Cushman takes a story that is often given to mythologizing and puts it into a compelling, realistic narrative for scholars and general readers alike.

See ICTMN’s interview with author Ellen Cushman here.