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

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

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

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


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.


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 selfexpression 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.

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