The Cherokee Language

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.

3 replies
  1. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    Years ago I met an elderly Cherokee woman named Raven Hail. We attended a writer’s group together in Asheville. She lived in a lonely little apartment there near the downtown area, cluttered with papers and boxes. All this clutter was not only her own writings, her own work in preserving her culture and educating the world about who the Cherokee both were and are. More importantly than that, she felt it was her life’s calling to spread the word about Traveller Bird (Please, note that he spelled it with two L’s.) and his book _Tell Them They Lie_.

    She was deeply angry that the we white folks could not admit that they had their own written language, since long before our ancestors showed up these shores. She told me about the complexity of theirs, as it was originally, also mentioning the Cree written language (which is frankly bizarre and unreadable and nothing like ANY other language.. for what my opinion is worth), and she gave me a copy of the book. In any case, she died within a year of my meeting her.

    While I am grateful that you at least mention the ‘alternate theory’ about where the Cherokee got their written language, it saddens me that you seem to brush off the idea too easily. Do not our historians only discount it because it does not jibe with what they always believed? Really what evidence do they have that theirs is the true version other than… inertia?When it comes right down to it, what corroborating evidence is there, honestly, that the more accepted version of the story is the actual true one?

    You know the adage about history being written by the victor?

    Shouldn’t we take the word of Sogwali’s own family over the traditionally held beliefs of their conquerors? How would you like it if a couple generations from now the grandchildren of people who tried to kill you, drove you off your land, and did succeed in killing thousands of your family… if these grandchildren were writing your personal history, based on what their ancestors had said or written about you, and poo-pooing anything your family had to say to the contrary?

    I don’t know if you have read the whole book, but I hear it’s been transcribed and is available free online (someone taking up the baton for Raven I reckon). If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. It is very compelling. Some parts are even funny, especially the story of how the great War Chief Dragging Canoe got his name.


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