Far away from Virginia, fall had already come. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan were dressed up like Indian warriors from whom their names came. Blood red and yellow, ocher and ice blue.
He read the road signs with interest now, wondering what lay beneath the names. The Algonquins had named the territory he lived in Great Water, michi gami. How many dead lives and fading memories were buried in and beneath the names of the places in this country… Names that had meaning. (329)
In this passage, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, her protagonist has returned to the land of his ancestors and discovered not only how large they lived but how their lives entwined with his own.
Here in Georgia there was once an indigenous people who lived large in their desire for civility and culture. Their lives entwine with ours now only in memory. Today, I’m going to guide you along a Southern Literary Trail different from the usual tour of authors’ homes. But still Southern, still literary. A dusty trail worn bare by many feet.
Roughly an hour north of Atlanta, up I-75 to exit 317, take the “blue highway,” Georgia 225 east to New Echota State Historic Site, the former capital of the Cherokee Nation. Once, the Nation stretched from Kentucky east to Virginia, south to South Carolina and west to Alabama, but by 1820, 90% of this land was lost to white settlement. Remaining were parts of Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the largest portion—Georgia , north of what is now Atlanta.
In 1825 the Cherokee national legislature chose a lovely stretch of land at the headwaters of the Oostanaula River to be their new capital. Originally called New Town, it was renamed New Echota after Chota in Tennessee. This national capital housed the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial, its government and constitution modeled after that of the United States, with John Ross as Principal Chief. There, the Cherokee set about adopting much of white culture and became the most progressive of Indian tribes. They attended schools, learned English, became highly literate in their own language, worked as farmers, tradesmen, and politicians (since the land was just about hunted out), and embraced white fashion. (The Cherokee never wore feathered headdresses or looked like characters in a TV Western; however, some of them did wear exotic Persian-styled turbans and robes made popular when, in the 1770s, they visited England and were given such clothes in place of their buckskins.)
What I find truly remarkable is that this planned town (think of other capitals such as Washington, D. C. or Brasilia or Islamabad) made a special place for The Cherokee Phoenix, the first Indian language newspaper. In 1826 the government decided to print a national newspaper, and in 1827 began construction on a print shop. The missionary board, headed by Samuel Worcester, acquired the type in Cherokee syllabary as well as the English alphabet, the press, and other necessary equipment. The newspaper, edited by Elias Boudinott, was a four-page weekly printed in both Cherokee and English, with a circulation throughout the Cherokee Nation, as well as the United States and even parts of Europe. The name Phoenix alluded to the mythical bird that rose from its ashes and reflected the Cherokees’ belief that they were rising above the stereotype of the ignorant savage. In addition to the newspaper, the press printed The Bible, hymns, and a novel.
Let’s go back to that word “syllabary,” mentioned above. A syllabary is a set of written symbols for syllables, as opposed to an alphabet of letters. Certainly, you’ve heard of Sequoyah, the illiterate Cherokee silversmith, born c. 1770 near what is now Knoxville, who invented the syllabary. Imagine sitting down and inventing “talking leaves” for your own language. First, Sequoyah tried a character-based system in which every word had its own character, but this effort proved impractical. Instead, by 1821, he had isolated the 85 syllables in Cherokee. In its appearance, his syllabary has been compared to Latin, Cyrillic, or Arabic letters, but there is no correspondence in sound. The beauty of his system is that once the student has memorized the 85 symbols, he can read immediately. With the introduction of this writing system, the Cherokee literacy rate quickly surpassed that of surrounding white settlers.
In Part Two, to be published tomorrow, I’ll tell you what happens next. But if you remember your American history, you already know the answer.