Team exploring linguistic legacy of Cherokee documents at Beinecke

In a small classroom on the lower level of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a cardboard box, small scraps of paper, and manila file folders are set out before three researchers. The modest setting belies the unprecedented project being undertaken.

For the first time ever, the Beinecke is delving into its Kilpatrick collection of Cherokee manuscripts, nearly 2,000 documents from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, all written in the hand of native authors. The goal is to discover what is in the collection, translate, and catalogue all the documents, and make them available to researchers and educators.

“We’re looking at personal documents of everyday life, such as diaries and letters to family members, as well as religious formulas, chants, incantations, and political documents,” said Lisa Conathan, archivist at the Beinecke. She has been leading the project with Hartwell Francis, Cherokee language program director at Western Carolina University and the Archibald Hanna Jr. Fellow at the Beinecke this September. Both are working in consultation with Durbin Feeling from the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, who is a recognized leader in Cherokee translation and author of the “Cherokee-English Dictionary.”

The Cherokee Nation has a strong literary tradition, notes Conathan. Its unique writing system, comprised of 85 characters, was developed in 1821 by Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith. His syllabary was the first independently created writing system for a Native American language.

According to Francis, one of the great discoveries in the Beinecke’s holdings is a print of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary from 1828. Careful observers will note that some of the letters resemble English characters.

“Sequoyah’s original writing system of 1821 was so delicate and calligraphic that it proved difficult to print,” said Feeling. Changes were made so that it would be more compatible with existing typefaces. In 1828 the Cherokee Phoenix went to press using the modified system. “It was a more practical choice,” he said.

Francis noted that his research at the Beinecke will benefit both his work at the Cherokee Language Program and at Cherokee language immersion schools. “All of this material will support efforts to educate a new generation of Cherokee speakers. This research will be important in the development of their identity,” he said.

According to Ned Blackhawk, professor of history and American studies, and a member of the advisory board at Yale’s Native American Cultural Center, “The work of linguists and language speakers in such efforts is particularly essential, especially in keeping alive and vibrant the languages of the first Americans. The Cherokee Nation works at the leading edge of such activism."

Feeling, who teaches a class on Cherokee Literacy and Text at Northeastern State University, plans to incorporate the team’s findings into his curriculum. He noted that there may be only 5,000–10,000 Cherokee speakers left in the world, most of them in their 60s or older, who can also read and write the language.

“There are younger people who can speak the language, but don’t read and write,” he said, “For most under 40, it is English only.”