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From Talking Leaves to Pixels: The Story of the Cherokee Syllabary

The exhibit “Cherokee Syllabary: From Talking Leaves to Pixels” shows the progression and adaptation of the Cherokee language, and runs until April 2.

The story of how Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary and how literacy quickly spread through the Cherokee Nation in the early 19th century has been told many times, but how our writing system has been in continuous use since then is rarely examined. The Cherokee Heritage Center tells that story through its exhibit titled “From Talking Leaves to Pixels: The Story of the Cherokee Syllabary ???? ?????? ?????? ???????: ??? ????? ???? ?????.”

The Cherokee Language Program at Cherokee Nation has collaborated with the technology industry to enable Cherokee syllabary support on many of today’s most popular digital devices, such as iPhones, tablets and Androids. The syllabary is also available for use on social media services, such as Facebook and Twitter. To make those projects a reality, much research was completed on how the syllabary was adapted through history to different forms of writing technologies; for example, from cursive writing with a dip pen to the moveable type of a printing press and to electric typewriters.

This research served as the basis for a presentation that the Cherokee Language Program presents, called “From Talking Leaves to Pixels.” Our team has presented this talk in various communities and at other forums throughout the years, including Google, Microsoft and Apple corporate headquarters. With this history in mind, planning for the exhibit began under Cherokee Heritage Center Executive Director Dr. Candessa Tehee, and I was asked to serve as guest curator.

To demonstrate the tenacity of the syllabary, it was important to display documents and other items showing its use not only in history, but also in our contemporary lives. More than 13 million pages of Cherokee language texts were printed by Cherokee presses in the 19th century until printing was shuttered and tribal governments were dismantled to make way for Oklahoma statehood. Samples of these historic texts are featured in the exhibit, including many items from the Cherokee Heritage Center archives.

The dismantling of the Cherokee press did not end the use of syllabary, however. Without formal means to print, Cherokees continued using syllabary to document everyday life. A small sampling of these kinds of items include a menu from a meeting of the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society in 1901; a description of the services offered for the sick and the dead by the Fairfield Baptist Church in 1915; notes by a medicine man about a female client in 1920; a bundle of love letters from the 1930s; an opinion on World War II; the minutes of a Sunday school meeting in 1959; letters from the war in Vietnam sent back to Oklahoma in the 1960s; and even comic books written in syllabary from the 1970s.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century when organizations such as the Carnegie Cross Cultural Education Project and the Cherokee Nation Bilingual Education Institute were formed that printed Cherokee text began again in earnest. New sets of Cherokee syllabary type were cast, and eventually these forms were adapted for both manual and electric typewriters, one of which is on loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society for the exhibit. This resulted in a plethora of new texts in Cherokee, developed with the aim of teaching Cherokee literacy. Examples include Cherokee health awareness texts, literacy books, religious tracts, various legal documents and even a driver’s manual.

As the 20th century progressed, the syllabary was adapted to electronic word processors, which required development of Cherokee fonts, and those fonts were further modernized for the Internet age in which people now blog and text in Cherokee and even use syllabary emoticons. Smart phones, tablets and laptops in the exhibit demonstrate syllabary in digital forms.

With the help of Jerry Thompson, Cherokee Heritage Center archivist, items in Cherokee from every decade since the syllabary’s invention in the 1820s were found. We relied upon the generosity of members in our community, including parents, teachers and students from our tribe’s Cherokee Immersion Charter School; Cherokee speaking elders; and the families of those whose Cherokee parents and grandparents are no longer with us. They provided items including homework in Cherokee, personal correspondence and even fashion items such as dresses and a scarf that incorporate the syllabary. Google also provided a grant to the Cherokee Heritage Center to help provide technology displays and print an exhibition catalog.

This exhibit is one developed for and by our Cherokee community, and without their support it would not have happened. Like many tribes, we are currently engaged in revitalizing our language, and the syllabary plays a very important part in that effort. Our writing system perseveres and serves as a symbol of how we continue to use it to write our own story.

RELATED: From Talking Leaves to Pixels: Exhibit Shows Progression of Cherokee Language