Writing in Cherokee

Since American Indian languages tend to be oral rather than written it is not surprising to find that Indian literature tends to be written in English. This should not, however, be taken to indicate that all Indian creative writing has been done in English. One of the notable uses of an Indian language for writing can be found in Cherokee.

In 1819, Sequoia (also spelled Sequoyah), a monolingual Cherokee, developed a writing system for the Cherokee language. Many of Sequoia’s 85 characters were borrowed from the European alphabet, but the characters have phonetic values which are very different. Sequoya was not literate in any European language when he devised the syllabary.  

Sequoyah realized that one of the most important advantages of the Euroamericans over the Cherokee was their ability write. In developing Cherokee writing, Sequoyah let his farm go to waste, neglected his family, and was viewed as deviant in his behavior by Cherokee standards.

With Sequoyah’s syllabary, the Cherokee quickly learned how to read and write in their own language. It is said that Sequoyah could gather a group of people together in the town square in the morning and that by sunset they would be reading and writing in their language.

In 1825, The Cherokee Council earmarked $1,500 (one-fifth of their annual income) for the purchase of a press and type in Sequoia’s alphabet. While Sequoia’s alphabet made it possible for anyone who spoke the language to quickly learn to read and write the language, printing was difficult as there was no type for Sequoia’s alphabet. Samuel A. Worcester, a newly arrived missionary, made the arrangements for getting the type cast in Boston and for obtaining a press.  

The idea of the Cherokee being able to write in their own language was opposed by many Christian missionaries and by the American government. One missionary wrote of the Cherokee language:

“I believe the less of it that is taught, or spoken, the better for the Indians. Their whole character, inside and out; language, and morals, must be changed.”

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, however, changed its approach with regard to using Indian languages and concluded that Indian languages should receive some attention. They found that the quickest way to teach Indian children English was to teach them to read in their own language first.

In Georgia in 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix was started under the editorship of Elias Boudinot (also known as Buck Wati, or Galagina). The weekly paper included articles in English as well as in Cherokee (using Sequoia’s alphabet).

The new paper was to include the following subjects:

(1) The laws and public documents of the Cherokee nation

(2) Accounts about Cherokee culture (“manners and customs”), the “arts of civilized life”, and notices of other Indian nations

(3) Interesting news of the day

(4) Articles to promote “literature, civilization, and religion among the Cherokee”

The paper also included extensive coverage of actions by Congress and by the State of Georgia which would impact the Cherokee. The publication of the first edition of the paper, however, was delayed because no paper had been shipped with the press. A temporary supply of paper was then brought in by wagon from Knoxville, Tennessee.

In 1833 Poor Sarah, or the Indian Woman, written by Elias Boudinot, the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, became the first novel written in the Cherokee language.


Cherokee Writing

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