Continuing Sequoyah’s Work

May 15th, 2013 | By | Category: 24-4: Language Revitalization
By Rachael Marchbanks

Preserving and revitalizing tribal languages, as highlighted in this issue, is an important part of how the tribal colleges safeguard the health and vitality of American Indian cultures. Native languages have been threatened ever since Europeans arrived in the Americas, but Native people have devised many strategies to protect and restore them. One such effort, as pictured on the cover of this issue, is the Cherokee syllabary. Invented by Sequoyah (Cherokee) in the early 1820s, his syllabary was a dramatic and far-reaching effort to revitalize a Native language.

An agent of change, Sequoyah was an acclaimed inventor, artist, and philosopher. Although he never learned to read or write English, Sequoyah intuited how written communication could benefit his people. Over a few years of careful observation of the spoken Cherokee language and experimentation with symbols, he developed a phonetic alphabet using letters that he created and others that he borrowed from the Roman alphabet. Since this invention was such a revolutionary concept, it was met with some skepticism and suspicion by his peers. To allay their fears, he taught his six-year-old daughter how to read and write in Cherokee using the syllabary, and together they demonstrated this new technique to their tribe. People soon saw the benefits of the system and learned it with ease. They shared it with others, and without classrooms or added expense, the Cherokees became literate within just a few months.

This newfound tool greatly increased communication between geographically isolated groups of Cherokees in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Subsequently, a Cherokee printing press was developed based on the syllabary and the very first American Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was established. Thousands of books, pamphlets, and passages were written or translated into Cherokee and printed by this press. Additionally, the Cherokees established a school system which used the new alphabet in its curriculum.

Sequoyah’s invention revolutionized and reinvigorated Cherokee communication and education. Like Sequoyah, tribal colleges and universities are innovators, educating students while preserving culture and language. In this issue we report on some of these exemplary programs. We wish we had the space to include all of them. However, if you are interested in reading more about Native language restoration and revitalization, please check out our resource guide for this issue. The resource guide is available to everyone and can be found at

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