Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880

By Phillip H. Round | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
Five
PUBLIC WRITING II
The Cherokee, a “Reading and
Intellectual People”

OF ALL THE NATIVE COMMUNITIES affected by the coming of print and alphabetic literacy to Indian Country, perhaps none has garnered more notoriety than the Cherokee. This is for good reason. Unique among indigenous nations, the Cherokee developed in 1821 a syllabic written form of the Cherokee spoken language not derived from the Roman alphabet. Not long after, the Cherokee tribal government mandated the establishment of a Cherokee national printing press, to be operated at the nation’s center in New Echota, Georgia. It would produce works in both the new syllabary and English. Thus, not only were the Cherokee leaders involved in the establishment of a very sophisticated indigenous scribal and print system, but also, because of increasing pressure from American land speculators backed by the State of Georgia, they found themselves at the center of a print culture debate over the legal status of Native nations residing in the United States. Their unusual historical position as a tribal community that had adopted a written national language led to their participation in two groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions that forever changed the nature of federal Indian policy in America. The Cherokees’ spirited and literate battle for sovereignty during the 1820s and 1830s was so impressive that non- Indians were forced to acknowledge them as a “civilized” tribe. And yet, under U.S. law, they remained a “domestic dependant nation” and “an unlettered people.”1

Although there was a profound irony in the public perception of the Cherokee in the nineteenth century — considered simultaneously the most civilized Native society in America and yet “unlettered” and “dependant” — at the time, most non- Indians simply thought of the Cherokee as the leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee, Seminole). If they had heard of Sequoyah — the man who invented the Cherokee

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