The gentleman with the long pipe and the colorful garments (right) points to a document.
What is it?
Take a closer look (below). It does not appear to be a letter or excerpt from a text. Some letters are recognizable as part of the Roman alphabet: I can see an A, an H, a J, for example. But then there are other unfamiliar characters, too. Is it an alphabet? And if so, for what language?
The man and the document turn out to be very impressive, indeed. This is Sequoyah and he holds a record of his notable accomplishment: the Cherokee syllabary – sometimes referred to as the Cherokee alphabet. A Cherokee man, Sequoyah invented the written form of his spoken language, allowing the oral history of a people to be written down. Sequoyah used versions of characters from the Roman alphabet and modified others to make new symbols. Each one signifies a syllable in the Cherokee language.
Sequoyah completed his syllabary around 1821. When it was adopted by the Cherokee Nation, they became the first Native Americans to have their own alphabet and writing system.
This allowed the Cherokee to create written documents: religious periodicals, newspapers, laws, and in 1827, a Constitution for the Cherokee Nation. The 1827 printing and a later 1875 edition of the Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation are among the treasures of the Law Library Rare Book Collection at the Library of Congress. (For the 1875 printing, see the title page at right, and also explore a fully digitized version.)
Sequoyah’s early 19th century invention continues to be used today – and in recent years has even entered a new frontier. The Cherokee syllabary is found on apps on smartphones and tablets so that a new generation can learn it as well.
- Sculptor Lee Lawrie included Sequoyah on the bronze doors of the John Adams Memorial Building, a part of the Library of Congress. The doors document a history of the written word.
- When Oklahoma added their first statue to the National Statuary Hall collection at the U.S. Capitol in 1917, they chose Sequoyah, making him the first Native American to be honored in this way.
- November is Native American Heritage Month. Explore online exhibits and resources as well as learn of events sponsored by the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, the National Archives and Records Administration, and other institutions.
- Find more images in the Prints and Photographs Division through our overview Images of Indians of North America.
- Many Nations: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States will lead you to resources throughout the Library’s vast collections and has been fully digitized.
Why are these treasures not in the hands of the Cherokee Nation?
I am blood lined to the Sequoyah (Cherokee Nation). I’ve been researching my heritage and background of my grandfather. I have gathered much info, but still working on it. I have a paper back book with the picture of the one above and it tells about the Cherokee language and alphabets, but not an old copy. This is interesting.
This is a very inspirational story, thank you so much
Terry -Anya Hayes: Thanks for your comment. These texts have been described as treasures of the U.S. national library, but they are not the sole copies. The Cherokee Nation published multiple editions that are held by various institutions, helping to broaden understanding of this impressive accomplishment and of the Cherokee constitution itself.