‘Character’ Study: Author Ellen Cushman is Fascinated With Cherokee Writing


Roy Boney Jr., who put together a graphic novel for Indian Country Today Media Network about the digitizing of the Cherokee syllabary, sat down with author Ellen Cushman to discuss their mutual passion. Read the review of her book, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance, here.

What drew you to undertake such an inquiry into the Cherokee syllabary?

Part of my interest started when I enrolled in the online language classes the [Cherokee Nation (CN)] started, taught by Ed Fields. I was seeing so many ways the alphabet was getting in the way of learning the patterns in the verbs and phrases he was presenting. When it was in the syllabary alone, you could see the patterns of sounds and characters build. It made me wonder why we transliterate Cherokee so much. Another part of my interest came when I started to study the copy of the original syllabary chart that’s in my book, which is also in the back of Holmes and Smith’s Beginning Cherokee. The characters on the left side of the cells fascinated me, which made me wonder what had happened to them. Other parts of my interest were more personal, and I talk a bit more about that in the preface.

What were the challenges of putting together this book?

Two big challenges: honoring the richness of the writing system, the knowledge of Cherokee language speakers and teachers and the work that everyone is doing to help keep the language alive, for one. Also, translating both the Cherokee and the disciplinary knowledge bases into a language that I hope is readable, accessible to everyone, but still rich, inviting and engaging. In short, honoring and translating.

What were the biggest surprises you found while researching?

So many: That longhand was in use in some archival documents I found in the collections at the National Anthropological Archives in D.C. Sequoyah’s layout for the system is used repeatedly in these documents as well. What a legacy the original script had.

The biggest and most important, though, was how astoundingly well the writing system matches the language; how it has such a heuristic value for learning the language, especially verb phrases and nouns derived from verbs, if you know what it’s representing. That fantastic press plate in the Gilcrease [Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma], uncataloged and on a shelf! One of the volunteers showed it to me—­crazy!—and it was saying such important things that were having a major impact on Cherokee life. I was stunned to find so many amazing language preservation materials from the late 1960s and 1970s. I had no idea. I had hoped that the whole book would read like an unraveling mystery as I wrote it, but I’m not sure that still gets to the reader. The process kept revealing surprising ways in which the syllabary worked to help us persevere.

For the Cherokee script you used the Digohweli font from Chris Harvey. There are two versions of the font, one with the historical do/? which was inverted in orientation and the contemporary version of the ? that is upright. Why did you choose the historical inverted version of the do/? character?

Chris was kind enough to invert that ? after we talked on the phone. I had explained how some of the movement to the print seemed so arbitrary and based on the typesetter’s or Samuel Worcester’s own dispositions toward alphabetic letters. The old ? is truer to the original. If I had the nerve, I would have asked for more to be reshaped to his shorthand characters.

You compare the original handwritten Sequoyan syllables by tracing the glyphs and layering the various shapes on top of each other to show their relationships by form. What led you to this?

I wanted to trace the visual lineage of the glyphs. How did they move from longhand to shorthand? What aspects were retained? How might their visual lineage help users remember the 86 characters, when on the face of it, the print seemed so different from the script? It was that mystery of how it was learned so dang quickly and how there was no lag in reading and writing rates after it moved to print. But if to the English speaking/writing eye these characters were so different, why was there no lag in reading and writing rates among Cherokee? So many mysteries to this system and that was one of them.

You write about the evolution of the writing system and discuss how in the finalized version of the syllabary, not all syllables were included, notably the mv syllable. In the book, mv is represented as “?.” It was my understanding that that is the nah syllable (represented in the Unicode chart as 13C0/nah). Could you clarify this?

That was me trying to find an English character for mv that was close to the print. Because mv was never put into print, I went for something that looked similar to the one I saw in his original list.

You tie the idea of peoplehood to the Cherokee writing system. Do you think the course of Cherokee history would have changed had Sequoyah not developed the system?

I think there’s a tremendous body of Cherokee reading materials, a legacy left, that his writing system enabled early on for our tribe. It surely had symbolic capital for the tribe as well, at a time when there were great pressures upon us to be “civilized.” It still makes more of our language available to us both in terms of the artifacts and the ways we can gather meaningfulness from these. We would have lost these things and more, but I am also quite certain that we would have persevered as a people, Sequoyan or not. So yes and no.

How do you see the development of the writing system in the digital era? Do you foresee another major evolution as large as the jump from handwriting to the printing press?

Oh yes, even more now. The digital makes possible the close unification of sound, place, action, image and Sequoyan. So many of the terrific materials that the immersion school teachers that you [Boney], Joseph [Erb], and Jeff [Edwards, all of whom work for Cherokee Nation Education Services], as well as Ed Fields, Sue Thompson, Durbin Feeling and the Language Consortium team at the CN, and the faculty at [Northeastern State University] have developed can be and are disseminated through digital means.

The thing is that now Cherokee can be learned in immersion styles. Also, the digital opens up all new practices, purposes and audiences for using Cherokee: Facebook pages, online resources like the Cherokee New Testament translation project, apps, YouTube videos. It’s an exciting time for the digital era.

Still though, some things trouble me. Ed was telling our class how he used to go into town and hear Cherokee spoken in the shops and on the streets, but not so much anymore. Every word we say though—every ?? (wa-do/thank you), ??? (o-si-yo/hello), ?????? (do-na-da-go-hv-i/until we see each other again)—every word matters. I wish we could encourage and hold each other as we take more risks to utter the words that help make us who we are.