The Splendid Heritage of Native American Languages

Editor’s Note: In December 2010, Sara Murphy, a graduate student in the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies, spent a two week practicum at the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center. In conjunction with the Splendid Heritage exhibition, one of her practicum projects was to examine and reflect on the books in the MHM Library that are written in Native American languages.

“Only Indian Paper to Be Abolished.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 17, 1902. MHM Library.

In the back of a Cherokee-language New Testament from 1860, I found a newspaper article, sepia-toned and cracking. It was clipped from a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, dated April 17, 1902. The largest headline is grim and terse: “ONLY INDIAN PAPER TO BE ABOLISHED.” The rest of the story unfolds in descending snippets: "Cherokee Nation Has No Funds for Advocate"; "It Was Started in 1830"; "Founder Originated Tribe’s Written Language, Which Is Only One Among Indians, and Was Honored."

Whoever pasted the clipping inside the back cover transformed one discrete book into a time capsule, sending out invisible webs that connect 1821 to 1860 to 1902 to today. The unnamed 1902 journalist was overly pessimistic, in some ways. He prophesied that the printed Cherokee language would be forgotten within the next generation. The Cherokee Advocate (a newspaper produced by and for the Cherokee) did, in fact, dissolve in 1906, after many starts and stops during its 78-year run. But the printed language remains: a Cherokee language (or Tsalagi) version of Wikipedia exists today, and the language has been converted to Unicode for preservation online as well as off.

Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. From History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs, by Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall (Philadelphia: J. T. Bowen, 1848–1850). MHM Library.

Many indigenous American languages are passed on through oral tradition, or transliterated into the Roman alphabet. In the early 1800s, George Guess (also known as Sequoyah) invented the Tsalagi syllabary. Each character represents a syllable rather than an individual letter. Sequoyah (the story goes) created this writing system without support from his community, becoming a recluse in order to perfect each character. According to some accounts, his wife and neighbors suspected that he was practicing sorcery. Finally, in 1821, the Cherokee Nation accepted the finished syllabary, rescinding any past criticism.

Although I ran across unfamiliar accent marks in other Native American books, I saw nothing quite as beautifully striking as the hieroglyphic patterns of Sequoyah’s syllabary. Reading the 1806 New Testament was a strange experience for me, like staring at an optical illusion and waiting for familiar images to pop into place. I encountered the New Testament hundreds of times during my childhood, but now the meaning was submerged beneath strange markings, lovely and unknowable. I wondered if the Cherokee people who viewed the Bible 140 years ago had the opposite experience, recognizing the characters but not the cultural significance. The printed word anchors meaning to markings, connects symbols to context. More than this, it transmits and preserves our cultures, our communities, our lives.

Although the stories about Sequoyah and the Tsalagi syllabary may be invented, or at least exaggerated, there’s something in them that rings oddly true. The printed word surrounds us to the point where we sometimes forget its power, the combined practicality and enchantment. In 1821, Sequoyah demonstrated the usefulness of his syllabary, but at first even this seemed strange: using lines on a page to represent our thoughts and ideas. Passed from person to person, words are powerful and transitory, and capturing them can be an act of magic—complicated, necessary, and startling all at once.

Okikinoadi-Mezinaigan, i.e., Spelling and Reading Book in the Chippeway Language, by Edward Beierlein (Detroit: Daily Tribune, 1852). MHM Library.

I encountered many different language books. In the 1800s, most were hymnals, Bibles, or prayer books, intended not only to teach English to the Native Americans, but also to provide a new culture and religion as well. Others were dictionaries to help with bartering or avoiding conflicts. The later books tended to be labors of love, preserving indigenous American vocabularies and teaching the words to English speakers. But in every case, each printed word contains more than just a single meaning. Whether written in the Roman alphabet or in Native American syllabaries, whether manifested in Wikis and Unicode or New Testaments that crumble into dust along the spines, the books tell a powerful story, illuminating the ways that printed language has shaped cultures over time.

—Sara Murphy, University of British Columbia

The exhibition Splendid Heritage runs through April 24, 2011. For more information, click here.