Cherokee syllabary shows resiliency, celebrates 200 years

A statue of Sequoyah is surrounded by the syllabary in front of Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Sequoyah created the syllabary 200 years ago and has been in continuous use since. 

TAHLEQUAH – Something new was coming to fruition as Sequoyah worked to take the spoken Cherokee language and put it in written form. In 1821, the Cherokees would have a new way to communicate to each other thanks to Sequoyah’s syllabary.

Roy Boney, Cherokee Nation Language Program manager, said Sequoyah was inspired to create the written language when seeing “white soldiers” writing letters home.

“He kind of thought, ‘why can’t we do that?’ And that’s what kind of spurred this whole idea of like trying to figure out how we can get the Cherokee language, the spoken version, to be represented in a writing system,” said Boney.

At first, Boney said, Sequoyah was met with “skepticism” from some of his peers.

“Sequoyah and his daughter, Ahyoka, were asked to demonstrate…because some people had accused Sequoyah of dabbling in witchcraft,” he said. “So, they did the test where he wrote something down on paper and…separated him from his daughter and…she replied back. After that public demonstration, that’s when the public really latched on to this concept that they can write their own language.”

Although Sequoyah originally began creating the writing system in 1809, Boney said it was completed in 1821. The syllabary was then adopted by the Tribal Council in 1825, and was used for tribal documents and eventually used in the tribe’s newspaper, Cherokee Phoenix, when it launched in 1828.

“Initially, a lot of the everyday…Cherokees adopted it,” Boney said. “And when people started noticing that, especially the missionaries, that’s when they thought, ‘well, maybe we can help them and get this printing press.’ And that’s what led to the missionary Samuel Worcester to start working with Cherokee Nation…to get a printing press.”

Boney said the addition of the press allowed the tribe to work against the “anti-Indian” sentiment of the time. “The Cherokee Nation was sort of using this, basically, this new technology as a platform to demonstrate that Cherokees weren’t these savages that everyone else tried to paint them as.”

In 1838, the tribe was forever changed because of the United States’ forcible removal of the Cherokees from their southeastern homelands to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. After removal, Boney said, the tribe re-established the printing press. When the Civil War ravaged the area, the press was “boxed up” and sent to Washington, D.C., for protection.

“The Cherokee Nation always saw that this printing press of the Cherokee language and writing was very important,” he said. “It’s always been a huge part of the community itself all the way up until statehood. As the historical record says, there was about 13 million pages of Cherokee text that was printed during that whole time.”

Because of the Curtis Act of 1898 and Oklahoma statehood in 1907, Boney said there was a decrease in the printing of Cherokee documents. But, he added, in the community people were still “writing stuff down.”

“So after statehood there was a small period where there were no printed Cherokee documents in the sense that…there was a Cherokee government, but it wasn’t really active like it was before,” he said. “People writing letters continued through most of the 20th century, this idea of writing in Cherokee still continued.”

During the 20th century, the tribe saw the appointments of chiefs by the U.S. president, often coined as “Chief for a Day.”  J.B. Milam, who held this title multiple times, worked to revive the idea of “printing in Cherokee.”

“So he established programs to get a new set of Cherokee type to begin printing Cherokee and started teaching that in the communities again,” Boney said.

From here, the syllabary was used with typewriters, computers and cell phones. As for its future, Boney said the CN Language Program is working with Google on optical character recognition.

“So that means if you scan a document or if you have an image in syllabary the computer can take that image and convert it to editable text,” he said. “So the more documents that you feed into this optical character recognition engine, it will get smarter and we can take some of our old documents and scan it and it will convert the text just immediately.”

ᏓᎵᏆ - ᎪᎱᏍᏗᏃ ᎢᏤ ᎬᏂᎨᏒᎢ ᏂᎦᎵᏍᏗᎭ ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏍᏏᏉᏯ ᏚᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎲᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎬᎪᏪᎶᏗ ᏂᎬᏁᎲᎢ. 1821, ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩᏃ ᏳᏂᎭ ᎢᏤ ᏱᎬᏁᎸᎢ ᏗᎬᏩᎾᏟᏃᎮᏗ ᎠᎵᎮᎵᏍᏗᏃ ᏍᏏᏉᏯ ᏧᏬᏪᎳᏅᎢ. 

Roy Boney, ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᎣᏙᏢᏒᎢ ᏄᎬᏫᏳᏒᎢ, ᎠᏥᏃᎧᏍᎬᎢ ᏍᏏᏉᏯ ᏅᏧᎵᏍᏙᏔᏅᎢ ᏥᏬᎷᏩᏛᎲᎢ ᎬᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ ᎢᏳᏍᏗ ᎠᏂᏁᎬᎢ “ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏁᎬ ᎠᏂᏲᏍᎩ” ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ ᎠᎪᎵᏰᏗ ᏙᏧᏁᏅᏒᎢ ᏫᏓ.ᏅᏍᎬᎢ

“ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏄᏪᎵᏒᎢ, ‘ᎦᏙᏍᎩᏂ ᏱᎦᏲᎦᏛᏁᏗ ᏱᎩ? ᎠᎴ ᎾᏍᎩ ᏧᏓᎴᏅᎮᎢ ᎠᏓᏅᏖᏍᎬᎢ ᎤᏁᏟᏙᏗᎢ ᏱᎬᎿᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ, ᎧᏁᎢᏍᏗ ᏥᎩ, ᎬᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ,” ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᎪᎳᎭ. 

ᎢᎬᏱᏃ, ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᎪᎳᎭ, ᏍᏏᏉᏯ “ᎠᏂᎳᏏᏘᏍᎬᎢᏃ ᏧᎵᎢ. 

“ᏍᏏᏉᏯ’Ꮓ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏪᏥ ᎠᎨᏯ, ᎠᏲᎦ, ᎨᎦᏛᏛᏅᏃ ᎬᏂᎨᏒᎢ ᎢᏳᏅᏁᏗᎢ ... ᏂᏗᎦᎵᏍᏙᏗᎭ, ᎾᎯᏳᏃ ᎤᏂᏣᏘ ᏚᏂᏂᏴᎮᎢ ᎯᎠ ᎾᏍᎩ ᏰᎵᎢ ᎤᏅᏌ ᎤᏂᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗᎢ ᎬᏮᏃᏪᎶᏙᏗ ᎤᎵᏍᏔᏅᎢ.” 

ᎾᎯᏳᏃ 1809 ᏥᎨᏒᎢ ᎾᎯᏳᏃ ᎢᎬᏱᎢ ᎤᎴᏅᎮ ᎪᎷᏩᏘᏍᎬᎢ ᏗᎬᎪᏪᎶᏙᏗ, ᎪᎳᎭ ᎢᎧᏃᎮᏍᎬᎢ ᏍᏏᏉᏯ 1821 ᏥᎨᏒᎢ ᎾᎯᏳᏃ ᏚᏍᏆᏛᎢ.  

1825 ᏥᎨᏒ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᏗᏂᎳᏫᎩ ᎤᏂᏍᏓᏱᏕᎢ, ᎠᎴ ᎠᏂᏍᏓᏢᎢ ᎠᏅᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ ᎠᎴ ᏭᏓᎠᎶᏢᎢ ᎠᏂᏍᏓᏢᎢ ᎪᏪᎵ ᎠᏂᎴᏴᏗᏍᎬᎢ, ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎢ, ᎾᎯᏳᎢ 1828 ᏥᎨᏒ ᎤᎵᏄᎪᏣ.

“ᎢᎬᏱᎢ, ᏧᎩᏨᏅᏓᏃ ... ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᎾᏕᎶᏆᏍᎬᎢ,” ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᎪᎳᎭ. ᎠᎴ ᎤᏂᏣᏘᏃ ᎤᎾᎴᏅᎲ ᎠᎾᏕᎶᎰᏍᎬᎢ, ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᎨᏥᏅᏏᏓ, ᎾᎯᏳᏃ ᎤᏁᎵᏒᎢ, ‘ᎾᏊᏃ, ᎡᎵᏊ ᏱᏕᏗᏍᏕᎳ ᎤᏂᎩᏍᏗ ᎪᏪᎵ ᏗᎦᎴᏱᏗᏍᎩ.’ ᎠᎴ ᎾᎯᏳ ᎤᎴᏅᎮᎢ Samuel Worcester ᏚᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎲᎢ ᎠᏍᏕᎵᎲᎢ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ ... ᎪᏪᎵ ᏗᎦᎴᏱᏗᏍᎩ ᎤᏂᎩᏍᏗᎢ.” 

ᎪᎳᎭ’Ꮓ ᎢᎧᏃᎮᏍᎬᎢ ᎬᏩᏠᏯᏍᏗᏃ ᏗᎦᎴᏱᏙᏗ ᎠᎵᏍᎪᎵᏗᎲᎢ ᎠᏂᏍᏓᏢᎢ ᏧᏂᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᏗ ᏓᏂᏃᏣᎵᏍᎬ “ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏁᎬ” ᏄᏍᏛᎢ ᎨᎦᏅᏛᎢ. “ᎾᏍᎩ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ ᏂᎬᏗᏍᎪᎢ ᎯᎠ, ᏭᎪᏛᏃ, ᎯᎠ ᎢᏤᎢ ᎦᎬᎬᏛᏅᏗ ᎪᎱᏍᏗ ᎾᏍᎩ ᎬᏂᎨᏒᎢ ᎢᎬᏁᎯ ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ ᎥᏝ ᎤᏂᏁᎫᏥᏓ ᏱᎨᏎᎢ ᎠᏂᏐᎢᏃ ᎤᎾᏁᏟᏔᏅᎢ ᎤᏂᏁᎫᏥᏓ ᎨᎪᏎᏗᎢ.” 

ᎾᎯᏳᏃ 1838, ᎠᏂᏍᏓᏢᏃ ᎬᏩᎬᏘ ᎤᏓᏁᏟᏴᏌ ᏂᏗᎦᎵᏍᏙᏗᎭ ᎠᎹᏰᎵ ᎬᏍᎦᏍᏗ ᎨᏥᎧᎲᏒᎢ ᎠᏂᏣᎳᎩ ᏙᏧᏁᏅᏒᎢ ᎤᎦᏅᏮ ᎢᏗᏜ ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯᏍᏛᎢ ᎨᏥᎢᎶᏢᎢ, ᏃᏊ ᏥᎩ ᎣᎦᎳᎰᎹ. ᎨᏥᎧᎲᏐᎾᏃ, ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᎪᎳᎭ, ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᎠᏂᏅᏍᏓᏢᎢ ᎢᎤᏃᏢᎯᏌᏂᏢᎢ ᏗᏐᏅᏍᏙᏗ ᏗᎦᎴᏱᏙᏗ. ᎤᎦᏅᏮᏃ ᎠᎴ ᎤᏴᏢᎢ ᏓᎿᏩ ᏣᏍᏆᎵᏍᎬᎢ ᎾᏍᎩᏃ Ꮎ ᏗᏐᏅᏍᏙᏗ “ᎧᏁᏌᎢ ᎤᏂᏢᏅᎢ” ᏩᏒᏓᏃᎢ, ᏍᎦᏚᎩ. ᎧᎸᏈᏴᎢ, ᎤᎾᎦᏎᏍᏙᏗᎢ.

“ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ ᎤᎵᏍᎨᏗ ᎤᏂᏰᎸᎯ ᎨᏒ ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᏐᏅᏍᏙᏗ ᏗᎦᎴᏱᏗᏍᎩ ᎠᎴ ᏗᎬᏮᏃᏪᎶᏙᏗ ᎢᏙᏳᎢ ᎤᎵᏍᎨᏗ’, ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ. ᎾᏍᎩᏃ 13 ᎢᏳᏆᏗᏅᏗ ᏱᎦᎢ ᏚᎦᏅᏓᏛᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᎵᏰᏗ ᏚᏂᎴᏱᏔᏅᎢ ᎾᎯᏳᎢ ᏥᎨᏒᎢ.” 

ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏂᎬᏂᏏᎭ Ꮎ 1898 Curtis Act ᎠᎴ ᎣᎦᎳᎰᎹ ᏍᎦᏚᎩ ᏥᏄᎵᏍᏔᏅᎢ ᎾᎯᏳᎢ 1907, ᎪᎳᎭ,Ꮓ ᎢᎧᏃᎮᏍᎬᎢ ᎤᏲᎶᏤᎢ ᏓᏂᎴᏱᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᎵᏰᏗ. ᎠᏎᏅ. ᎠᏠᏯᏍᏗᎲᎢ, ᏍᎦᏚᎩ ᏚᎾᏙᏢᏩᏗᏒᎢ ᎤᏂᏣᏘ ᎠᏏ “ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ.” 

“ᏍᎦᏚᎩ ᏄᎵᏍᏔᎾ ᏞᎦ ᏱᎪᎯᏓ ᎥᏝᏃ ᏱᏓᏂᎴᏱᏗᏍᎨᎢ ᏗᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᎪᎵᏰᏗ ᎠᏓᏅᏖᏗᏃ ᎨᏒ ... ᎥᏝᏃ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᏱᏓᏂᎳᏫᎨᎢ, ᎠᏎᏅ ᎥᏝ ᎪᎱᏍᏗ ᏱᎦᎵᏍᏔᏅᏍᎨᎢ ᎾᏍᎩ ᎢᎬᏱ ᏥᏄᏍᏛᎢ.” ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ. ‘ᎤᏂᏣᏘ ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ ᏭᎪᏛᎢ 20th ᏓᏕᏘᏱᏍᎬᎢ, ᏂᎬᏂᎯᎵᏐᎢ ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ.” 

ᎾᎯᏳᎢ 20th ᏂᏓᏕᏘᏱᏍᎬᎢ, ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᎠᏂᏍᏓᏢᎢ ᎠᎹᏰᎵ ᎤᎬᏫᏳᎯ ᏕᎦᎧᎲᏍᎨᎢ ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎤᏂᎬᏫᏳᎯ, ᎤᏂᎬᏫᏳᎯ ᎨᏒᎢ ᏏᎦ ᏱᎪᎯᏓ.” J.B. Milam, Z ᎯᎸᏍᎩ ᎢᏳᏩᎬᏘ ᎠᏥᎧᏅᎢ ᎨᏒᎢ, ᎾᏍᎩ ᏚᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎳ “ᏚᏂᎴᏱᏙᏗᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎬᏗ.” 

ᏚᏬᎷᏩᏛᎲᎢ ᏚᏙᏢᏒᎢ ᎾᏍᎩ ᏧᎩᏍᏗᎢ ᏗᏤᎢ ᏗᏣᎳᎩ ᏗᏐᏅᏍᏙᏗ ᎤᎾᎴᏅᏗᎢ ᏓᏂᎴᏱᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎬᏗ ᎠᎴ ᎤᎾᎴᏅᏗᎢ ᏓᎾᏕᏲᎲᏍᎬᎢ ᏗᏍᎦᏚᎩᎢ ᏚᏙᏢᏒᎢ,” ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ ᎪᎳᎭ. 

ᎠᏂ ᏂᏛᏓᎴᏂᏍᎩ, ᎾᏍᎩ ᏚᏃᏴᎬᎢ ᏕᎪᏪᎸᎢ ᏓᏅᏗᏍᎪᎢ ᎥᎿ  ᏗᏐᏅᏍᏙᏗ ᏓᏃᏪᎵᏍᎬᎢ, ᎠᎦᏙᎥᎯᏍᏗᏍᎩ ᎠᎴ ᏗᎵᏃᎮᏗᎢ. ᎤᏩᎬᏗᏗᏒᎢ, ᎪᎳᎭ ᎢᎧᏃᎮᏍᎬᎢ CN ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᎤᏙᏢᏒᎢ ᏚᏂᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎲᎢ ᎠᏂᏍᏕᎵᏍᎬᎢ Google ᏓᏟᎶᏍᏓ ᏗᎪᏟᏍᏙᏗ. 

“ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᏥᏂᎦᎵᏍᏗᎭ ᏱᏕᎭᏟᎶᏍᏓ ᎪᏪᎳᏅᎢ ᎠᎴᏱᎩ ᏱᏣᎾ ᏗᏟᎶᏍᏔᏅ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎪᏪᎵ ᎾᏍᎩᏃ ᎠᎦᏙᎥᎯᏍᏗᏍᎩ ᏱᏓᏟᎶᏍᏓ ᎠᎴ ᎬᎦᏁᏟᏴᏍᏗ ᏱᏂᎬᎦ ᎠᎪᎵᏰᏗ,” ᎠᏗᏍᎬᎢ. “ᎤᎪᏗᏃ ᏗᎪᎵᏰᏗ ᏱᏅᏛᎬᎦ ᎥᎿ ᏗᏟᎶᏍᏗᏍᎩ, ᎠᏏᎾᎯ ᏂᎦᎵᏍᏗᎭ ᎠᎴ ᏧᏪᏘᏃ ᏗᎪᏪᎵ ᏙᎩᎾᎥᎢ ᎠᎴ ᏱᏓᏟᎶᏍᏓ ᎠᎴ ᎧᎳᏫᏴ ᎢᎪᎯᏓ ᏱᎦᏁᏟᏴᎾ.”