The legacy of the Cherokee Syllabary in WNC

Sequoyah statue located outside of Museum of the Cherokee Indian | Photo via @cherokee_museum

Did you know that the Cherokee people have had a written language since 1821? Known as the Cherokee Syllabary, it was invented by Sequoyah, and was so effective that it engendered a large proportion of the Cherokees to become literate in the span of only a few years. 

As our Cherokee neighbors celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of their native language, which is one of the oldest written Indigenous languages in America, we’re looking back at its remarkable history, and the new traveling exhibit which honors its legacy. 

An antique postcard that honors Sequoyah’s linguistic contributions. | Photo by Ali Eminov

How it started 

According to the Cherokee Nation, Sequoyah invented the language over the course of 12 years, working mainly by himself + with the assistance of his 6-year old daughter, Ah-yo-ka, who learned the language during this process. 

Different from an alphabet, which contains only the phonemes of languages such as English and Spanish, the syllabary contains 85 distinct characters that represent the full spectrum of sounds used to speak the Cherokee language. This made it easy for Cherokee speakers to learn.

While Sequoyah’s new writing system was initially met with skepticism and accusations of “witchcraft,” it wasn’t long before it was embraced. In 1825, it was formally adopted by the Cherokee Nation. And by 1828, the Cherokees launched the Cherokee Phoenix, the nation’s first bilingual newspaper

How it’s going

Over time, the syllabary has evolved into the digital era, from typewriters and word processors to modern-day smartphones (complete with its own app) and social media, and it’s spoken fluently by ~2,000 people worldwide. There’s also various language programs available at the reservation for those who haven’t yet had a chance to learn. 

Want to learn more? 

We recommend checking out “A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary & Contemporary Art,” which highlights the language’s legacy as a form of cultural expression + pride, and is currently on display at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian through Oct. 31

If you can’t make the ~1 hour drive, the exhibit will also show at the Asheville Art Museum from Nov. 19, 2021- March 14, 2022