Literacy and Intellectual Life in the Cherokee Nation, 1820–1906

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Media Reviews

literacy-intellectual-life-cherokee-nationBy James W. Parins
University of Oklahoma Press (2013)
276 pages

Review by Herman A. Peterson

The Cherokees have had a longer history of literacy in their own language than any other tribe in the Americas, thanks to the genius of Sequoyah and his syllabary. Most of the Cherokee Nation was literate in their own language just a few years after the development of the syllabary, so that by the end of the 1820s the nation was publishing its own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, in both Cherokee and English.

James W. Parins’ new book is an intellectual history of the Cherokee people organized according to literacy and literary output— the ability to read and the urge to write. It very well may be the first, published intellectual history of a tribe. Certainly such a history is of much longer duration for the Cherokee because of their early acceptance of writing.

Literacy and Intellectual Life in the Cherokee Nation begins with the early mission schools established in the 1820s in the pre-removal era, mostly in the areas that would be incorporated into the states of Georgia and Tennessee. After the removal of the Cherokee people on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation quickly established schools in Indian Territory, including both male and female seminaries— some of the first institutions of higher learning west of the Mississippi River. The book concludes with the dissolution of Indian Territory that came with Oklahoma statehood.

Literary output is a major focus of this work. The first preremoval newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was followed by the publication of the Cherokee Advocate years later in Indian Territory. Several chapters are devoted to Cherokee writers of the 19th century, the most notable of which is probably John Rollin Ridge. Novelists, poets, essayists, and polemicists are included, spanning the intellectual range of Cherokee thought. I heartily recommend this book to the tribal colleges and their libraries.

Herman A. Peterson, Ph.D., is the librarian at Diné College and author of The Trail of Tears: An Annotated Bibliography of Southeastern Indian Removal.

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