Seeing Ourselves: Cherokee DNA Tree of Life: Our Syllabary

Illustration (c) 2023 by Jeff Edwards.

The Cherokee language is what ultimately defines us uniquely as Cherokees. We are one of only a very small handful of Native American tribes who have a syllabic writing system. The Cherokee Syllabary was completed by Sequoyah in 1821. His Syllabary contains eighty-six individual characters overall. Soon after the official adoption by the Cherokee Nation, ninety percent of all Cherokees were fluent in reading and writing.

The Cherokee Syllabary is still used today by fluent Cherokee speakers and second language learners. Now, with the Cherokee Syllabary supported by nearly every major digital platform, such as iOS, Windows, and Android, it is literally used every day. I work for the Cherokee Nation Language Department and was part of the team that began working with Facebook by crowdsourcing the translation of its content. We translated the Google homepage into Cherokee, and Google also developed a Cherokee virtual keyboard.

Next was Apple: we became the first Native American tribe to be represented on a smartphone. Shortly after the release of the 4.3 iOS update, over forty million people had the ability to type in Cherokee, and soon afterward, it came out on iPad and iPod as well.

Then Microsoft asked us to translate the entire Windows operating system. We were given eighteen months to translate roughly 500,000 words, and we were successful. We were the first Native American tribe to have an operating system in our language, and that included the interface plus supporting font and keyboard entry. We worked some more with Google and translated all of Gmail into Cherokee, and the Android phone operating system also adopted a Cherokee keyboard and font.

All of this to say, we are doing everything in our power to make sure the Cherokee language is around forever.

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future. Find more in the "Seeing Ourselves" series here.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is the illustrator of Man Made Monsters (Levine Querido), which won the 2023 Walter Award in the teen category.

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