Somewhere in Oklahoma, a restless student with an iPhone set to silent is stealthily texting, much to the chagrin of their teacher. This is about as common a scene as you might expect to find in a modern classroom. Only something’s different here: the student is texting in Cherokee. When Apple released its 2010 version of the ubiquitous device, they included a brand new feature – full use of the Cherokee Syllabary.
While the technology might be new, the Cherokee’s endless ability to adapt is not. Indeed, the eighty-six character syllabary may be the most dramatic adaptation in the nation’s long and illustrious history. In the early eighteenth century, during the decades before Indians of the Southeast were violently forced west, a Cherokee silversmith named Sequoyah embarked on a revolutionary project: the construction of the first indigenous writing system in North America. Within years of its completion, nearly the entire nation was fluent and a vibrant new era of Cherokee publishing was born.
Ellen Cushman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an associate professor at Michigan State University, traces this dramatic story in her compelling new book, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011). Moving the conversation away from an alphabet-centric approach which sees the syllabary as a corollary of English, Cushman places Sequoyan in the matrix of Cherokee peoplehood and reveals its unique and enduring connection to the tribe’s perseverance. As the Cherokee Nation embarks on an ambitious plan to stem the erosion of their language – a troubling trend among the world’s indigenous peoples – Cushman’s book adds fascinating new dimensions to this crucial project.