Osiyo–Celebrating Literacy and American Indians

Literacy. The magic key that unlocks worlds of knowledge and communication. It’s what allows us to read what was written hundreds of years ago, and to read what bloggers are writing today. We are celebrating National Native American Heritage Month and National Family Literacy Month today at A Traveler’s Library.

When Ken and I travel to a new country, we always try to learn at least a few words in the language of that country.  So while I am a complete klutz when it comes to learning languages, I can say Hello and thank you and sometimes please in many languages.

Bonjour, kali mera, guten täg, hola, ciao…if you want to see more, here’s a comprehensive “how to say it in any language” site.

My latest acquisition is Osiyo. It means Hello in the Cherokee language.  I can’t write it correctly here, because my blog composition site does not include the Cherokee syllabary.  But now that I-Pad has aps for any and everything–you can get your I-Pad in the Cherokee language. When I visited the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma recently, Principal Chief Chad Smith demonstrated.

Chief Chad Smith and I-Pad

The Cherokee were removed from their lands in the Southeastern United States and moved to Indian Territory (later to become Oklahoma) in 1838/39. While America’s native peoples were on the receiving end of many cruel acts, this one stood out because the Cherokee had realized early on the value of the farming methods, clothing and tools that the non-Indians brought with them when they arrived on this continent. The Cherokee had assimilated and become good farmers and prosperous business people.  Early after First (European) Contact, they may have looked like this (representing the early 1800’s)

Cherokee garb after European contact

But the men were already adapting linen nightshirts from Europe for shirts more comfortable than deerskin. And by the time they were moved to Oklahoma, women were wearing a dress patterned after the pioneer women’s garb, modest and full skirted. It is called a “tear” dress, because the material was torn into squares and then stitched together.

A footnote on the men’s costume that you will see below. They wore turbans! Two Cherokee diplomats sailed to England to meet with the King back in the 1700’s. The King was afraid that ladies would faint if they saw the heavily tattooed foreheads on the shaven heads of the Cherokees, so he presented them with turbans.  They politely put them on. When they came back to North America, everybody said, “Wow! Those look great! I want one too.” And a turban fashion swept the Cherokee nation. Here’s one on a statue.

Our Cherokee Guide Lauren on Centennial Plaza of NE Oklahoma University

But more important than what they wore, the Cherokees had a written language–adopted in 1821–the first of any North American native nations.  And how it came to be seems like a miracle.

Sequoyah and the Cherokee syllabary

Sequoyah, who may or may not have looked like this–there are no actual portraits because he was a very modest individual–noticed that non-Natives could look at squiggles on a piece of paper and could talk the words indicated there.  He saw that they carried information in print on newspapers and in thick books.  The Cherokee had nothing like that, but he thought they should. So, despite the fact that he could not speak or read English, or any other language other than Cherokee, he up and invented a written language for his people.

You can see some of the symbols in the pictures above. The first thing you will notice is that he used English letters. It was a practical matter, since the books and newspapers were printed with those symbols, and it would be easier for the Cherokee to copy something already in existence.  But since his written language replicated sounds of syllables rather than the more abstract letters of English, he ran out of symbols, and had to create more.  And no, the English letters that he used do NOT represent the sounds of the Roman alphabet. So here (on the left) is what Osiyo looks like in Cherokee.

1890's school house in the Cherokee National Museum complex.

Once they had the tool to make writing, they quickly got into the printing business in 1828, before removal to Oklahoma and started a newspaper which the Cherokee Nation still publishes. It is now the Cherokee Phoenix and has a circulation of 35,000 (both English and Cherokee language editions) and a web site. No word on how the I-Pad is cutting into circulation.

Cherokee Printing Press in old Supreme Court Building Museum, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Think about how our written language evolved–the beginnings so far back in history that we are still not sure who to credit for the beginnings. One language grew out of another, one writing system out of another.  And then think of the Cherokee written language and the genius who developed it from scratch.

I visited Oklahoma as the guest of  Cherokee Nation Tourism who took a group of writers to Will Rogers’ Days, and various Cherokee Museums in and around Tahlequah, their capitol. Some Cherokees still live in the Southeast, but the largest number are in Oklahoma, and they are the second largest American Indian nation after the Navajo (Diné) of Arizona. What a great trip. If you don’t know the Cherokee Nation, especially if you do family travel and road trips, put Tulsa and Tahlequah on your agenda. You can see more photos at my Facebook album.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

5 thoughts on “Osiyo–Celebrating Literacy and American Indians

  1. I enjoyed this post too. I’ve not been to Talequah, but I have spent some time with the Cherokee who still live in North Carolina. Have you been to those lands?

  2. Thanks to both of you. I’m I-illiterate, so if something works on the I-Pad, will it also work on the I-Touch??

    And I have to say that the area was amazing and far exceeded my expectations.

  3. Thank you for sharing! I have a number of relatives in Tahlequah and Fort Gibson, and I love the area! (PS – for the record, I think the chief is holding an I-Touch, not an I-Pad) -r

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