In parts of the United States today, including Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, road signs are marked with unfamiliar symbols that don’t correspond to English letters. Passing through these areas, you may wonder what the symbols mean.
In all likelihood, you are looking at signs written in the Cherokee language, a remarkable example of linguistic resilience. In spite of 100 years worth of efforts to stamp it out, there are still approximately 22,000 native Cherokee speakers alive today.
How did they manage to preserve their language?
The Cherokee language is unique among Native American languages in that it is both a written and spoken language. Written Cherokee, or Tsalagi as it’s more properly called, has a full syllabary, a collection of symbols in which each symbol corresponds to a sound. Currently, there are two stories of how the syllabary came to be invented.
The most commonly told story and the one with the most historical evidence to back it is that it was created around 1821 by a Cherokee Indian named George Guess or Gist, known as Sogwali in Cherokee and Sequoyah to white people who didn’t bother to get the spelling of his name right. Naturally, Sequoyah is the name that stuck in the historical record. Sequoyah invented the Tsalagi alphabet after seeing how white settlers were able to communicate in writing. He taught it first to his young daughter, then to as many Cherokee as were willing to learn it-eventually educating thousands of his people. According to this generally accepted version of history, Sequoyah also acted as a diplomat for the Cherokees, signing treaties for them.
However, there is a competing version of the story. In 1971, Traveler Bird, one of Sogwali’s descendents, published a book claiming that Sequoyah was not the creator of the Tsalagi alphabet, but actually the last surviving member of a clan of scribes that had passed on the written version of the language for generations. According to Traveler Bird, Sequoyah didn’t invent the syllabary; he just passed on his society’s specialized knowledge to the general Cherokee public. Although some of the symbols used in the syllabary as it’s written today are similar to the English alphabet, Traveler Bird claims this is only because they were “reworked” by white missionaries who wanted to cover up the fact that Native Americans could come up with the concept of writing on their own. However, this account is questioned by many historians because of the lack of corroborating evidence.
Keeping the Language Alive
No matter when it happened or who invented it, the Tsalagi syllabary was a brilliant idea. Newspapers, books and bibles were printed, which helped keep the Cherokee language alive even after many of the tribe became Christian and began living lives that closely resembled those of the white settlers.
It also helped keep the language alive through the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, when Cherokee living in Tennessee and North Carolina were forced on a death march to Oklahoma after the government decided that white settlers deserved the land they were living on.
Since the army didn’t even give the people time to prepare for the trip, somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 people died en route. Then, in the name of “assimilation,” the government developed the policy of taking Native American children away from their homes and sending them to schools where they were punished if caught speaking their native language.
Given this history, it’s amazing to see signs for the Trail of Tears and other important Cherokee historical sites marked in the Cherokee language. It’s even more amazing that there are still people who can read them.