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Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life

Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life

by Margaret Bender, William D. Strickland, Margaret Clelland Bender

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Based on extensive fieldwork in the community of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, this book uses a semiotic approach to investigate the historic and contemporary role of the Sequoyan syllabary--the written system for representing the sounds of the Cherokee language--in Eastern Cherokee life.

The Cherokee syllabary was invented


Based on extensive fieldwork in the community of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, this book uses a semiotic approach to investigate the historic and contemporary role of the Sequoyan syllabary--the written system for representing the sounds of the Cherokee language--in Eastern Cherokee life.

The Cherokee syllabary was invented in the 1820s by the respected Cherokee Sequoyah. The syllabary quickly replaced alternative writing systems for Cherokee and was reportedly in widespread use by the mid-nineteenth century. After that, literacy in Cherokee declined, except in specialized religious contexts. But as Bender shows, recent interest in cultural revitalization among the Cherokees has increased the use of the syllabary in education, publications, and even signage.

Bender also explores the role played by the syllabary within the ever more important context of tourism. (The Eastern Cherokee Band hosts millions of visitors each year in the Great Smoky Mountains.) English is the predominant language used in the Cherokee community, but Bender shows how the syllabary is used in special and subtle ways that help to shape a shared cultural and linguistic identity among the Cherokees. Signs of Cherokee Culture thus makes an important contribution to the ethnographic literature on culturally specific literacies.

Editorial Reviews

Raymond J. DeMallie
This is a fascinating study that makes a major contribution to the anthropology of literacy.
From the Publisher
Margaret Bender has shown an interest and a willingness to become involved in our Cherokee culture with a particular emphasis on the language. The results of her studies are informative and enlightening to the Cherokee Language Project. (Jean L. Bushyhead, Project Manager, Cherokee Language Project)

Signs of Cherokee Culture illustrates the tenacity of the Cherokee to keep their culture and identity, defines the role and significance of the Sequoya syllabary, and adds an important volume on Native American literacy to the anthropologic literature. (James A. Bird, Cultural Resources Manager, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians)

This is a fascinating study that makes a major contribution to the anthropology of literacy. (Raymond J. DeMallie, Indiana University, Bloomington)

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Signs of Cherokee Culture
Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life

By Margaret O. Bender

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 080782707X


Why Study Cherokee Literacy?

This book is about much more than literacy. Literacy provides our entry point into a wider world of contemporary Cherokee linguistic and social practice. Because the Cherokee language has its own unique, indigenously developed syllabary, Cherokee literacy teaches us something important about Cherokee modes of communication and self-expression while enriching our cross-cultural understanding of what it means to read and write.

Three important arguments emerge as central to this book. First, although most Eastern Cherokees are not literate in the syllabary in the conventional sense, the syllabary plays an extremely meaningful role in contemporary Cherokee life through its broader semiotic functioning. Second, because the syllabary has been such a potent and polyvalent symbol since its invention, because it has been taken to represent both adoption and rejection of the dominant society's values and practices, and because it plays an important part in Eastern Cherokee self-representation through tourism and in other contexts, the syllabary is an excellent vehicle for the study of relationships between this community and the mainstream U.S. culture. Finally, the community's beliefs about the Cherokee syllabary, some articulated and some presupposed, shape usage of the syllabary in culturally specific and meaningful ways, demonstrating clearly that not all literacies are alike.

Syllabary Characters as Signs of Culture

In returning to the Cherokee syllabary's "broader semiotic functioning," I point to the ways in which the syllabary and its individual characters work as signs. The syllabary, invented by the monolingual Cherokee Sequoyah in the early nineteenth century, is one of four systems used to write Cherokee among the Eastern Band. As such, the signs that are its characters represent the sounds of spoken Cherokee. More specifically, since its characters are syllabic, each sign represents one commonly occurring syllable, a consonant plus vowel, in spoken Cherokee.

But if we stop here we miss several other levels on which the syllabary functions semiotically. The American pragmatist C. S. Peirce identified three kinds of signs—that is, three ways in which objects can be meaningful: as symbols, indexes, or icons. Syllabary characters, through their varied uses in Eastern Cherokee life, serve as all three kinds of signs.[1]

Following Peirce, a sign is symbolic if its meaning is conventional and must be learned. Most words are symbols of this kind, and so are the syllabary's characters when they are representing the sounds of Cherokee speech. For example, the syllabary character ‹cher›, which represents the syllable /ka/, works as a representation of that syllable only after the reader has deliberately set about learning its value. This value has been determined historically through the work of Sequoyah, the syllabary's inventor, and through the adoption and use of this character by literate Cherokees over the past two centuries.

A sign is indexical if its meaning depends on a more direct relationship between the object and what it represents such as contiguity, causation, or some other association. The music produced by wind chimes is an index of the blowing wind; my bundling up is an index of the cold weather. The reader will learn that the syllabary functions indexically in several ways: its use or presence characterizes users, contexts, texts, objects, and spaces, with a variety of specific meanings. For example, the syllabary is used in signs around the community to identify buildings as part of the Cherokee social and political infrastructure; these include a senior citizens' center, day care center, clinic, tribal council house, and so forth. The syllabary indexically marks these spaces as local, for Cherokees rather than for tourists. It accomplishes this function whether or not its symbolic meaning—the actual spoken Cherokee represented—is understood by those who see it.

Finally, a sign is iconic if its meaning depends on a resemblance to whatever it represents. Figure 1 is an icon of the syllabary chart published by missionary Samuel Worcester in 1828; a map of New York City is an icon of that city. The resemblance of the syllabary used in particular contexts to, for example, the print found in the New Testament contributes greatly to its meaning. The syllabary chart reproduced in Figure 1 is an extremely important local Cherokee icon, seen in homes, in schools, in books, and on products made for tourists, connecting contemporary usage of the syllabary with its celebrated invention and history.

Because of its rich polyvalence, the syllabary's distribution and use tell us not just about Cherokee language and literacy but about self-representation, social roles in the community, and local epistemologies. In Chapter 2, I will illustrate the indexical and iconic functions served by the syllabary in Cherokee language classrooms. The role the syllabary plays in communicating social roles and values helps to explain its importance in an educational environment in which other writing systems are in far more widespread use. Chapter 3 broadens this discussion to explore the syllabary's semiotic functioning in religious practice, cultural events, the local media, and the community at large. It becomes clear that the foregrounding of the syllabary's iconic and indexical functions, at the expense of its symbolic ones, serves to protect the community's most valued linguistic and cultural knowledge. I present community members' explicit beliefs about and attitudes toward the syllabary in Chapter 4, drawing on interviews with community members as well as participant observation in such contexts as a local language maintenance project. These expressed beliefs, such as the opinion that the syllabary is inherently more difficult than other writing systems, help to explain how the syllabary's symbolic capacities (as an orthography capable of representing the sounds of spoken Cherokee) have been overshadowed by its other semiotic qualities. Finally, in Chapter 5 I explore the syllabary's semiotic role in the complex context of tourism. Clearly, most tourists neither speak nor read Cherokee. Yet the syllabary is visible in signs marking the tourist-oriented downtown and on commodities produced for tourists. Understanding why this is so and what the purposes and meanings of these uses of the writing system might be necessitates a grasp of the syllabary's capacity to carry meaning on a variety of levels.

Cherokees and the United States

Studying the syllabary also provides an opportunity to study the relationship between the Eastern Cherokee community and the dominant or mainstream society with which it is interconnected. Because of the syllabary's polyvalence, it should not be surprising that it simultaneously provides a parallel to U.S. ideals of literacy, education, and "civilization" and points to a radical break with U.S. culture and its values.

No matter how "acculturated" the Eastern Cherokee population is considered to be, there is something to being "Cherokee" that is not coterminous with being "American." Former principal chief Joyce Dugan was recently described as thinking "it was healthy—a miracle, really—that [the Cherokees'] native identity was still intact, still existed at all after the battering it had taken down through the years" (Gaillard and DeMeritt 1998: 26). This living cultural difference is strongly implicated in beliefs about how language use contributes to the production of various types of community members, how it marks community boundaries, and so on. The study of literacy in particular, because of its links with Cherokee history and self-representation, touches directly on the questions of how this cultural difference is maintained, how it changes, and how it might be threatened.

Language plays a crucial role in interactions between subordinated groups and the dominant society and more generally in power relations among groups in society. In particular, writing has been at the same time a tool of the dominant culture's oppression and a tool of independence and resistance—and for many of the same reasons—for example, because it has been held by users to be an agent of "civilization." As discussed in detail in Chapter 1, the syllabary has always been a point both of connection and of disjuncture between Cherokee ideologies of literacy, civilization, and national identity and the corresponding ideologies of the larger U.S. society.

Other researchers have documented resistance to literacy in many Native American communities, where literacy has often been seen as a threat to oral tradition. Willard Walker argued that "acceptance [of a writing system] by the target population is contingent on four factors: 1) acceptance of the innovators and others associated with the program, 2) recognition on the part of the native community that literacy is useful enough or fun enough to be worthwhile, 3) the acceptability of the content of any literature produced, and 4) the acceptability of the writing system" (1969: 149). Elsewhere (1984) Walker suggested that although the Algonquians of the far Northeast have traditionally used mnemonic aids in support of recitation, they resist the graphic representation of speech as a threat to their vital oral traditions.

William Leap (1991: 28-33) identified several reasons why writing is resisted as an element of Ute language preservation and education: (1) familiarity with Ute language literacy as a public phenomenon is not widespread; (2) the illiteracy of elders causes a generational role reversal among teachers and learners; (3) available reading material is limited; (4) literacy does not seem to have practical usefulness; (5) writing the Ute language is seen as an alteration of its condition as given by the Creator; (6) the spoken language is seen as unsuitable for representation by written text; (7) writing and reading to exchange information constitute a departure from traditional Ute information-sharing strategies; and (8) the uneven distribution of Ute language literacy likely to result from its introduction has the potential to complicate Ute social relations.

Because Cherokee literacy is an indigenous phenomenon, there has been a different cultural response. But the notion that literacy makes an indigenous culture vulnerable to intrusion and expropriation is still important in the Cherokee case.

Cherokee literacy occupies a central position in what is sometimes characterized as the triadic complex of hegemony, ideology, and resistance (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Philips 1998). Ideology is usually described as conscious and often politicized belief, whereas hegemony is "the invisible compulsion whereby context defines the limits of what is thinkable" (Hanks 1996: 205). In other words, hegemony exists when an ideology is accepted as given, without question or even thought, by people whose interests it may not serve. Cherokee beliefs about literacy emerge from a borderland at which a dominant culture meets a resistant one, a borderland characterized by a tension between conscious and unconscious beliefs, between acceptance of the dominant society's values and resistance to them. This means, among other things, that Cherokee beliefs about literacy and its connections to power and culture may be largely implicit.

The facts that something like 10 percent of Eastern Cherokees still speak Cherokee and that many still use the syllabary in specialized ways may in and of themselves be seen as evidence of resistance to the U.S. hegemony that asserts the centrality of the English language.[2] Most Americans presuppose the naturalness and inevitability of the English language—both of which have been to some degree rejected by Eastern Cherokees. Even today, there are elderly Cherokees who are more comfortable speaking in Cherokee than in English and many adults whose first language was Cherokee. But there is also an implicit acceptance of English underlying the community's orthographic preferences, as the reader will discover later on. And for some community members, U.S. English-language dominance is actually more explicit. One elder told me:

If you go to work at Robbinsville [the town closest to a remote Eastern Cherokee community] plant, you got to speak English. If you gonna teach at Robbinsville, you gotta speak English, so . . . it's in other words, English—your way and ours, see. In order for us to live, we've got to live like you do, and we gotta talk like you do. We got to think like you do. And that's one reason why, you know, they're getting away from Indian culture, because Indians, here, reservation-wide, or here in Snowbird, they haven't got a thing. They haven't got a thing. Everything that they do is done in English. Every business that's carried out, done in English. Well, the tribal council, they got a Indian clerk up there, but most of the council members are, nonspeaking, you know, Cherokees. They don't speak Cherokee, most of 'em don't—just very few. So . . . in other words, there's no need for it. I mean, that's the way most people looks at it. There ain't no need of it. Of talking Indian anymore. Because, we live the white man's way, so . . . now you look around this room right here. You look next door, here, all you hear is just English language, you don't hear Cherokee. But, the only place you hear Cherokee, in some of the older generation here, older people, but the young generation, they don't understand it. They don't talk it. So . . . I believe that's the reason why, you know, that the younger generation is shying away from Cherokee culture and Cherokee language.

Although most Cherokees would probably agree with this elder that English is ubiquitous and indispensable, more and more are rejecting the notion that Cherokee language loss must inevitably accompany the acquisition of English. In recent years, Cherokee language education programs and the language in general have gained a higher profile in the Eastern Cherokee community. There has also been an increase in overt positive expressions of interest in Cherokee language education by community members. Two new Cherokee language curricula were introduced into the tribally run preschool program and elementary school in 1998, and a trial Cherokee language immersion preschool class was implemented that year as well. A weekly Cherokee language program also started up on local cable television. The syllabary has played an important role in this linguistic revitalization, with more and more language-related commodities for sale in gift shops and circulated among community members. In recent years, more institutional signs and billboards have appeared in the syllabary.

The syllabary's complex relationship to the dominant culture is nowhere more evident than in the public space inhabited by tourists, where the syllabary serves different semiotic roles in marking spaces and objects appropriate for outsiders and in marking spaces as part of the genuine community infrastructure. The process of setting boundaries between community insiders and outsiders, between Cherokees and tourists, is just that—a process, rather than a given. The Cherokee syllabary is of course not the only semiotic medium through which these statuses are negotiated, but it is a fascinating one. It is important to understand that not all residents of the community or enrolled members of the Eastern Band would necessarily agree on definitions for such labels as "Cherokee" or "outsider," or on the specific individuals to whom they should be applied. It would certainly, therefore, be inappropriate for me to suggest such definitions. But it would also be beside the point because these are not categories with an ahistorical, a priori existence nor can they always be understood as measurable qualities of specific individuals. Rather, these are the dimensions of contrast in terms of which the syllabary is mobilized to assert identity, to promote community, to communicate exclusion, and so on.

Because tourism is so important to the shape of contemporary Eastern Cherokee life and because the relationship between the tourist culture and the syllabary is both close and complex, it is important to think carefully about tourism as a site for cultural production and negotiation, as a vehicle for the—usually contested—representation of a community to itself and to outsiders and as a point of intercultural contact and communication. A generation ago, most of the interest in tourism in anthropology was of the applied, policy-suggesting kind, rather than of the descriptive, ethnographic variety warranted in this case. Cultural anthropologists may traditionally have shied away from sites of tourism because they felt they were somehow "inauthentic" and that studying such sites thus jeopardized the authenticity of the anthropologist. Anthropologists were supposed to study the traditions presumably inaccessible to tourists. They were supposed to get at the "real" culture hidden away from what Toby Volkman calls "the tourist gaze" (1990: 91). Perhaps because the Western appropriation of non-Western cultural artifacts and practices, as well as the exploitation of non-Western peoples, is considered by many anthropologists to be exemplified in tourism, and because anthropologists sought to distance themselves from such appropriation and exploitation, they sought to excise tourism from their fields of inquiry. In so doing, anthropologists perhaps hoped to dissociate themselves from the history of colonialism, social inequality, and dominance that has shaped modern tourism.

For many anthropologists as recently as 1990, tourism "seem[ed] to be a blight upon the local culture as well as an intrusion upon (and a threat to) the anthropologist's own privileged domain. As a phenomenon it [was] easily disdained, mocked, even condemned; as a subject of inquiry, it [was] easily trivialized" (Volkman 1990: 91). This trivialization was misplaced; dismissing the significance of an intercultural arena such as tourism was neither useful nor historically accurate. It was part of a broader historical tendency to treat as discrete the domains of the "native" and of the "outsider."

More recently, however, leading anthropologists have taken a different approach, teaching us "to reconfigure the usual binary opposition as a triadic historical field, including a complicated intercultural zone where the cultural differences are worked through in political and economic practice" (Sahlins 1993: 13). This kind of deconstruction of the rigid binarisms that have made tourism seem inappropriate as a subject of anthropological inquiry, along with a critique of anthropology's own relationship to tourism and the contexts in which it occurs, characterizes much exciting recent work (e.g., Adams 1995; Castañeda 1996; Davis 1999; Errington and Gewertz 1989; and Kahn 2000).

The popular and onetime anthropological assumption that tourism is only about exploitation and culture loss deserves special scrutiny. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins's general critique (1993) of a trend in anthropology to read colonial situations as the wholesale imposition of the monolithic culture of the capitalist West on a consequentially dissipated or incoherent local "tradition" is pertinent to this more specific issue of anthropology's historical avoidance of tourism. The cultural interaction that occurs in the context of tourism is not a zero-sum game, which the economic interaction is perhaps more likely to be. The cultural encounter that is tourism entails a negotiation of boundaries, of identities, of particular material and nonmaterial resources. There may not be a clear or rigid demarcation between expropriators and losers of "culture." I am not at all denying that power asymmetry characterizes many postcolonial cross-cultural encounters. But such encounters may also be sites of meaningful productive activity for all of the individuals or groups involved.

It seems clear that tourism provides the opportunity for a range of practices that could only be described as fully "cultural." Tourism involves acts of selecting or creating, presenting, and exchanging artifacts and practices that the context designates as self-representational or as metonymic to the native self. The sellers also require a market, and they may cater to the fantasies and projections of that market. But the artifacts and practices produced for tourists can never be only a reflection of the desires and demands of the non-native consumers because the context in which they are produced differs from that in which the tourists formulate their desires and ready their gaze. Desires, or "needs," as sellers construe them, do not always emerge wholly from within the buyer's own culture either. Tourism may provide an opportunity for "natives" to indicate to "strangers" what their (the strangers') needs are.

In a study of tourism among the Toraja people of Indonesia, Volkman (1990) shows that tourism is not a discrete field of action but an integral part of the cultural life of a people, which undergoes change as a result of "old" cultural elements being set into a "new" arena. She demonstrates that certain practices and artifacts, notably a type of house construction and a type of funeral effigy, become differently valued and mobilized in the conjuncture represented by tourism in this Indonesian culture. These changes are internal to the culture, having ramifications in that culture far beyond the immediate context of tourism. Most important, in Volkman's work there is no "real" Toraja culture beyond the facade of tourism; what has happened to the elements of Toraja culture she discusses is treated as a productive cultural process, not reduced to "loss" or "corruption."

The creative and powerful ways in which the Cherokee syllabary is mobilized in the context of tourism exemplify this multifaceted cultural process. While it may be true that the syllabary's use in marking commodities and the landscape of local tourism exceeds its use in conventional "reading and writing," this does not reflect culture loss or degradation. Rather, it demonstrates the rich variety of contexts in which syllabic writing and printing are introduced and the plurality of levels on which this writing has meaning. In the context of tourism, the syllabary does the crucial semiotic work of representing, delineating, and protecting the Eastern Cherokee community.

A Unique Literacy

The final major argument of this book is that this community's beliefs about and uses of the syllabary have shaped its life as a writing system in highly specific ways, demonstrating that literacy is a diverse phenomenon.

This general point has been made before. Indeed, a whole minor industry in the human sciences has grown up around the question of whether it is possible to generalize cross-culturally about the impact of literacy on societies and on individuals.

Many of us who study the complex of technologies, artifacts, and practices called up by the term "literacy" are familiar with the idea, initially formulated by Brian Street (1984) but reasserted many times since (e.g., Besnier 1991; Newman 1996; Street 1993), that there are two central "camps" in the study of literacy. Each of these camps is believed to support a different model of literacy; in Street's terms, one of these models is "autonomous" and the other is "ideological."

Street identified as proponents of the "autonomous" model of literacy those thinkers who have argued that literacy itself, independent of historical context, brings about (or enables) changes in social organization at a societal level and in psychological state, behavior, or cognition at an individual level. Representatives of this model would include Walter Ong (e.g., 1982), Eric Havelock (1976), and most prominently Jack Goody (Goody 1968, 1977; Goody and Watt 1972). Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) presents an extreme version of the "autonomous" model that emphasizes the power of print.

In a review essay on the topic, Carl Kaestle (1985: 16) summed up the characteristics of writing, which, in the "autonomous" view, are essential to its transformative power:

Among the most important technological features of writing are these: it allows the replication, transportation, and preservation of messages, and it allows back-and-forth scanning, the study of sequence, deliberation about word choice, and the construction of lists, tables, recipes, and indexes. It fosters an objectified sense of time, and it separates the message from the author, thus "decontextualizing" language. It allows new forms of verbal analysis, like the syllogism, and numerical analysis, like the multiplication table. The long-range developments made possible by this technology have been profound, leading eventually to the replacement of myth by history and the replacement of magic by skepticism and science. Writing has allowed bureaucracy, accounting, and legal systems with universal rules. It has replaced face-to-face governance with depersonalized administration. On the other hand, it has allowed authorship to be recorded and recognized, thus contributing to the development of individualism in the world of ideas.

While authors like Goody focus on features such as those listed by Kaestle, framed as the positive characteristics of literacy, Walter Ong (1982) stresses the distinguishing and often positive qualities of orality. Indeed, he expresses regret at the depersonalization of communication that he believes writing brings about. Orally based thought and expression, he contends, has distinguishing and often positive associations. The oral is "additive rather than subordinative," "aggregative rather than analytic," "redundant or 'copious,'" "conservative or traditionalist," "close to the human lifeworld," "agonistically toned," "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced," "homeostatic," and "situational rather than abstract" (Ong 1982: v-vi).

Street opposed these "autonomous" thinkers to enthusiasts of the "ideological" model of literacy, who deny both the straightforward causality and the uniformity of "literacy." Recent work of this type has also been called the "new literacy" studies (Brody 1996; Street 1993), and the figures associated with it include Scribner and Cole (1981), Heath (1983), Ochs and Duranti (1986), Besnier (1991), and Street himself. According to Street (1993: 1-2), the new scholars of literacy are distinguished by their acknowledgment of the multiplicity of literacies; the need to study broader social practices relating to and "local conceptions of reading and writing"; the diversity of ways in which members of newly literate cultures "transform literacy to suit their own cultural concerns and interests"; the relationship between literacy and modes of differential identity in nation-states such as ethnicity, gender, and religion; the importance of "vernacular" literacies; and the necessity of an ethnographic approach.

Street argues that the ideological model recognizes the centrality of "power relations" and "power structures" in its approach to literacy (1993: 7). Literacy, according to this model, operates at the ideological level, that is, "at the site of tension between authority and power on the one hand, and resistance and creativity on the other" (8).

It may be time to move beyond the binarism of this metamodel (this model of the models of literacy). The rich ethnographic literature on culturally specific literacies has substantially problematized the notion that there is a single, universal trajectory from the oral to the literate (Bauman 1991; Halverson 1992). Furthermore, new theoretical and methodological approaches may assist us in incorporating the study of literacy into our broader anthropological projects of understanding the role of language in cultures, the relationship between types of language use and forms of agency (e.g., see Desjarlais 1996), and the articulation of language with other systems of meaning and value in cultures.

We should treat literacy as a diverse human phenomenon with associated institutions, artifacts, practices, and ideologies, involving not just technology and system but diverse forms of practice and distribution. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument suggests that we should not treat literacy as a neatly bounded entity of which exclusive, targeted study is most productive. We must study literacy in the same ways in which we study human social and cultural life generally.

Literacy practices, in all their diverse forms, are communicative practices, in the senses articulated by William Hanks (1996) and Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet (1992). Hanks has said of this approach that "our starting point is the three-way division of language as a semiformal system, communicative activities as semistructured processes, and actors' evaluations of these two. . . . The three elements come together in 'practice,' the moment of synthesis" (1996: 230). Earlier Michael Silverstein similarly argued that "every linguistic category related to our ability to refer and predicate . . . is situated at . . . a triple intersection of structural, pragmatic, and ideological perspectives" (1995: 514). That is, as investigators of language in culture, we must keep in mind the three analytic levels—inextricable in practice—of language structure, language use, and linguistic ideology. Linguistic ideologies have been defined as "any sets of beliefs about language articulated by the users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use" (Silverstein 1979: 1). What does this mean for the study of literacy? In studying literacy as a linguistic and sociocultural phenomenon, we must attend to all of the following: the structure of the writing system—its technical features and the specific ways in which it represents spoken speech; the ways in which the particular writing system is used in a given sociocultural and historical context; and the beliefs about the writing system operating among users. These three perspectives (ideological, structural, and pragmatic) are always mutually informing and interdependent, so that what may seem like the most straightforward aspect of a writing system—the way in which it represents spoken language—may be modified over time by both usage and belief.

In this book, I argue that the intersections and mutual influences of the syllabary system, local ideologies of literacy, and patterns of use must all be studied for us fully to grasp what the Cherokee syllabary means in contemporary Eastern Cherokee life. To get at the local meanings of literacy, it is necessary to focus on contextualized and concrete literacy practices, not only on the syllabary's nature as an abstract system. Observing usage of the syllabary in a variety of practical contexts—in churches, in classrooms, in the production of language education materials and commodities for tourism—has provided invaluable data. Moreover, I have sought not only to describe this observed practice but also to explore the dynamic cultural categorizations it reveals. Karl Marx said, "Language is practical consciousness" (Marx and Engels 1970: 51). If that is true, reading and writing are consciousness made tangible, circulable, commodifiable—and the importance of studying these practices and their products is as clear as the importance of studying human consciousness.

Local ideologies of literacy surface in interviews with syllabary users. Additional beliefs emerge more powerfully, however, from a study of literacy-related practices themselves. In the categorization and rationalization of their behaviors, members of cultures reveal assumptions about behavior that they would not necessarily articulate directly. By looking at syllabary usage, broadly defined, paying special attention to relationships among usage, context, and content, I have noted that the syllabary has local associations and meanings beyond those expressed in interviews. The set of associations that point toward the syllabary being a kind of "code," discussed in detail in Chapters 2 and 3, illustrate this.

The written word is a conveyer of specific meanings and general (symbolic) meanings, but it also has the capacity to be the source of or medium for practical transformations. In Cherokee, for example, writing has had the capacity to turn a medicinal formula into an inheritable commodity. Being able to write traditionally assisted in the transformation of a Cherokee into a practitioner of traditional medicine. Being able to read also plays a part in the transformation of a Cherokee speaker into a particular kind of Christian. This capacity of writing to serve as a vehicle for culturally specific transformations makes it an extremely rich field for inquiry.

And finally, it is extremely important to contextualize the study of Cherokee literacy in the unique history of the Cherokee syllabary. Doing so reveals why Cherokee language literacy is not just the meeting of a neutral technology—writing—with a specific spoken language. The life story of Sequoyah, including the ambivalent response of the Cherokee Nation to him, the almost immediate association of the syllabary with printing, the New Testament, and the newspaper that became a key site for debate over the removal issue—all these provide clues to understanding the meaning of Cherokee syllabary use, even in the present. This history is discussed in further detail in Chapter 1.

Some Background on Cherokee History and Language

At the time of first contact with Europeans, which was perhaps as early as the arrival of Hernando DeSoto (Mooney 1982: 23-29), the Cherokees probably occupied a large portion of what we now call southern Appalachia and its surrounding foothills, a territory that included parts of what are now Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.[3] In the 1700s, it was reported that the Cherokees lived in several autonomous villages of a few hundred people each located throughout this region. Eighteenth-century Cherokee society was structured by membership in matrilineal clans and a pattern of matrilocal residence. An annual round of religious events such as the cleansing and renewing Green Corn ceremony was held in each village's ceremonial grounds, and medicine men cured illnesses through herbal and spiritual means. Towns classified themselves as "red" or "white" at any given point in time. A red town was in a state of war, under the leadership of young men. A white town was at peace, with old (white-haired) men at the helm. Women played an important role in the society, controlling the distribution of horticultural products, especially corn, and contributing to discussions in the political councils. At this time, however, the Cherokee economy was already beginning to shift from one based on horticulture, hunting, and the use of wild plants to one more directly connected to the colonial (and then U.S.) market economy. Rather than hunting for subsistence, many Cherokee men were hunting for furs and skins to trade. By the nineteenth century, the U.S. government was pressuring the Cherokees to adopt white patterns of labor and social organization. Cherokees adopted plow agriculture, and new patterns of property distribution allowed major differences in wealth to emerge. In the early nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation established a constitutional government, and many Cherokees converted to Christianity. It was in this complex context that the syllabary made its formal appearance in the 1820s.

By the 1830s, the climate in the U.S. Southeast had become inhospitable to the indigenous nations there, and a policy of removal was enacted. Southeastern Indians, including the Cherokees, were to cede their homelands in exchange for lands in Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. In 1838, the Cherokees were forcibly removed from the original Cherokee Nation to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. It is estimated that one-third of the Cherokee population perished during this trip, which was undertaken in the winter months. As a result of the removal, most Cherokees now live in Oklahoma or elsewhere, but some eleven hundred managed to remain behind in the Smoky Mountains (Finger 1984: 29). It is largely their descendants who make up the currently enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Cherokee Nation reestablished itself in Indian Territory and continued as a relatively autonomous entity until the establishment of the state of Oklahoma in 1907. In the late nineteenth century, land in Indian Territory was gradually opened up to white settlement, and Cherokee lands were allotted. This meant that land formerly held communally was parceled out to individuals and the remainder sold. Since that time, many Western Cherokees have lived in largely Cherokee communities, practiced their religion at Cherokee stompgrounds or churches, spoken the Cherokee language, and in general continued their cultural traditions. But there was and is no reservation in Oklahoma.

Back in the East, Cherokees also continued their traditional way of life during the nineteenth century, and eventually the Eastern Cherokees obtained their own reserved lands in western North Carolina. Most continued to engage in subsistence agriculture and hunting, and by the turn of the century many Eastern Cherokees began to work in the logging industry. By the 1930s, the area was developed for tourism, which has been a mainstay of the Eastern Cherokee economy ever since.

Cherokee language use has been remarkably resilient throughout the last two tumultuous centuries. Although some Cherokees have been bilingual in Cherokee and English for a very long time, monolingual English-speaking Cherokees have been unusual until the last few generations. In Oklahoma in the 1970s, the number of monolingual Cherokee-speakers was sufficient to merit a bilingual education program in the schools and translation services at public events and institutions. In North Carolina in 1956, Cherokee was the preferred language spoken at home by all members of 41.33 percent of all households in Big Cove, a conservative Eastern Cherokee community (Gulick 1960: 68-69). As recently as 1981 it was reported that in Snowbird, an even more remote community, "the Cherokee language is spoken fluently by most . . . residents over the age of 18. In a Cherokee-speaking family the language is used at all times, even in the presence of non-Cherokee-speaking whites. Cherokees seem to be very proud to know and speak the language. Most children do not learn much English until they enter grade school. All of the Snowbird Indians, except for a few older people, are bilingual, speaking both the Cherokee and English languages. The Cherokee language is very important to the Snowbird Indians, helping them to maintain their own tradition" (Wachacha and Wachacha 1981: 59).

Numerous government policies, particularly those enacted through the institution of boarding schools that took children away from their Cherokee-speaking families and in which students were punished for speaking Cherokee, sought to eradicate the language over the course of the twentieth century. Children kept speaking Cherokee even in these harsh circumstances, however. Cherokee elder Robert Bushyhead recalled: "About the time that we got that Cherokee language a'going real good, someone would say 'I hear you!' They punished us in several ways. They put soap in our mouths to wash out the language. Then they even used a strap, or maybe had us walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the entire school in a gown or a girl's dress, anything to humiliate us" (quoted in Friday 1998: 14-15CL). Another elder told me: "When I went to boarding school, and I was caught talking in Cherokee, and they told me I had to wash my mouth out with Ivory soap, and, which I did. And next time they catch me they told me they was gonna give me four-hour detail, that I would have to scrub the floor by hand, so . . . and after that, they tried to get me to forget, but I didn't. You don't forget your own language."

In addition to the boarding schools, the Cherokees' relative lack of isolation in both the East and West has also posed a threat to the Cherokee language. Still, this resilient language lives on through the strength and persistence of its speakers.

The Eastern Band in the 1990s

The core of Cherokee reserved lands is officially known as the Qualla Boundary.[4] Technically, the Boundary is unlike most reservations because the lands were purchased privately on behalf of the Eastern Cherokees, although today they are held in trust by the federal government. Of the 56,573 acres owned jointly by the tribe, 45,554 make up the Qualla Boundary, 2,249 form the Snowbird Community in Graham County, 3,200 near the Birdtown Community are known as the 3200-Acre Tract, and the remaining 5,571 acres are made up by twenty-six scattered tracts in Cherokee County (Gulick 1960: 4-6).

A local source gave the total number of enrollees in the mid-1990s as 10,320, of whom 6,887 were reported to reside on Eastern Band land (Hipps 1994: 49). U.S. census data suggested a somewhat lower number of enrollees in residence. According to the 1990 census, of the 6,527 persons living on Eastern Band land, 1,094 were designated as white, 15 as black, 5,387 as American Indian, 1 as Eskimo, 13 as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 17 as Other. Sixty-six persons residing on tribal land were designated as being of Hispanic origin (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990a: 88, Table 13).

Downtown Cherokee, the business and tourist center for the Boundary, is located in a valley at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the Oconoluftee River is joined by Soco Creek, Wright's Creek, and Shoal Creek. The Boundary shares much of its border with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway runs directly through the Boundary lands.

The physical geography of the Boundary has been well described elsewhere (e.g., in Gulick 1960). The lands range from approximately seventeen hundred feet to five thousand feet above sea level and contain abundant timber, streams suitable for trout fishing, and some land suitable for subsistence agriculture.

The Eastern Band is served by a twelve-member representative body called the tribal council and a three-person executive committee consisting of a principal chief, vice-chief, and executive advisor. The chief and vice-chief are elected by the adult population, and the executive advisor is appointed by the chief. Two elected representatives are sent to the tribal council from each of six separate political communities: Yellowhill (downtown Cherokee), Birdtown, Big Cove, Wolftown, Painttown, and Snowbird/Cherokee County. In the past, these communities were served by individual day schools. They still retain some degree of social and political cohesion, as suggested by the existence of separate Head Start programs and community centers for each community. In at least some of these communities, community members still pitch in to assist families or elderly individuals in need with such chores as chopping firewood. This pooling of labor may go back to the traditional Cherokee economic cooperatives, known as katu:ki (Fogelson and Kutsche 1961).

The population of the reserve was fairly young in 1990, with a median age of 26.2 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990a: 513, Table 80). At the time of the 1990 census 66.3 percent of males fifteen years and over and 72.4 percent of females fifteen years and older were married or had been married previously (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990a: 514, Table 81). Average household size was 3.1 persons (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1990a: 90, Table 15).

There are numerous Christian churches on the Boundary, representing a variety of denominations; Baptist church membership is the highest. There has also recently been a resurgence of local interest in traditional medicine and spirituality.

This is the general historical and social context in which the Cherokee language and the Cherokee syllabary are used today. It is in part because Cherokee speakers are in the minority today, with even fewer readers and writers of the syllabary, and because of the dominant society's ambivalent attitude toward Cherokee accomplishments, including literacy, that the syllabary has such semiotic power and polyvalence. The syllabary's complex history will be explored in further detail in Chapter 1.

Excerpted from Signs of Cherokee Culture by Margaret O. Bender. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Margaret Bender has shown an interest and a willingness to become involved in our Cherokee culture with a particular emphasis on the language. The results of her studies are informative and enlightening to the Cherokee Language Project.--Jean L. Bushyhead, Project Manager, Cherokee Language Project

Provides a detailed explanation of the historical and contemporary uses and meaning of Sequoyah's syllabary."-Our State

Margaret Bender's work is dense in theory, yet easily understood when she presents supporting ethnographic data. Signs of Cherokee Culture illustrates the tenacity of the Cherokee to keep their culture and identity, defines the role and significance of the Sequoya syllabary, and adds an important volume on Native American literacy to the anthropologic literature.--James A. Bird, Cultural Resources Manager, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Bender's thoughtful book sets a new standard for literacy studies among American Indians. . . . [It] raises a host of fascinating questions that should send anthropologists to the field and historians to the archives.--Claudio Saunt, University of Georgia, for American Anthropologist

A nuanced ethnography of Eastern Cherokee literacy that documents the community's experiences with all forms of writing, both Cherokee and English. Her book explicates the historical and contemporary uses and significance of Sequoyah's syllabary, the most famous example of American Indian writing systems.--Raymond J. DeMallie, Professor of Anthropology and Director, American Indian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington

Meet the Author

Margaret Bender teaches linguistic and cultural anthropology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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