If One Made Writing, What Can We Do?

 

Response to Ellen Cushman’s The Cherokee Syllabary Intro to Chapter 4

When we talk about the craft of writing, we’re usually referring to how its reworked, expanded, contracted, crossed out, and amended on a page, in order to convey meaning in ways that feels satisfactory to the writer for whatever their imagine the writing’s purposes to be. Reading The Cherokee Syllabary however has expanded my notions of writing craft as well as the way I previously perceived the emergence of writing as a technology. Sequoyah’s work in creating the Cherokee Syllabary recalls the activity of Theuth described in Plato’s Phaedrus, but here that work takes on a political element absent in the Egyptian god’s divinely powered craft.

Often when people imagine Native American resistance they conjure up images of violent retaliation or solemn protests most regularly shown in stark black and white history book illustrations. Sequoyah disrupts that narrative by using writing, a technological system, to simultaneously unite and enhance the diversity of means the Cherokee people were able to communicate and develop their culture in the face of stolen geographic spaces. Exceptional to me about Sequoyah’s work was his amazing perseverance in spite of his lack of support from family and friends in crafting a writing system from trial and error despite a lack of traditional literary or linguistic education (Cushman 34). This trial and error component of his crafting of the syllabary makes me question the source of a technological system like writing.

Unlike other scripts created over many generations, Sequoyah produced the first publicly displayed syllabary after working on it along for a decade, a drastically short period of time relative to other scripts refined by different people across different spaces. How does the syllabary’s creation potentially change the way that early Roman writings are typically understood? Does the syllabary perhaps minimize the notion that early Roman scripts were primitive in design, and that current iterations are more sophisticated, or is there something about the conditions from which the Syllabary arose that provided the perfect ambient conditions for its seemingly stable creation in such a short period?

In an almost alchemical manner, Sequoyah accessed the ability to create this writing technology by his deep reflection on the way the Cherokee language operated orally as well as physical interaction with his environs. This reference to alchemy is not to write off the rigor with which Sequoyah attended to the task, but to illustrate my own awe about it. Cushman states Sequoyah’s qualities of “inventiveness, and discipline, coupled with his abilities in art and drawing, all seem to have contributed to his ability to delve into the ways in which representation works” (36). However, it’s his long bouts of isolation that I feel require greater focus in considering the formation of the language. And here I’m not referring to those moments where he’s marking on a piece of bark with his knife, but instead the instances to and from such spaces. What occurs within the mind as it moves into creating visualized forms of something it had only known orally? How gradually was it that Sequoyah made a sound and a family of markings imagined itself in front of him?

His isolation also makes me wonder the degree to which he believed the syllabary could potentially aid the Cherokee people during its crafting. There does seem to be a fair amount of arrogance in the idea that a single person could generate a writing script, and I wonder what other elements beyond the necessity to strengthen and preserve Cherokee culture motivated Sequoyah, partially due to wanting to tap into that source myself. Cushman states Sequoyah was “motivated by white people’s literacy, their ownership of such a powerful tool, and the respect that such ownership garnered” (35) and desire to make his writing system unlike white people’s, yet how does a person ensure that that becomes the case? Does that mean Sequoyah took note of white people’s literacies and worked his script to be everything those weren’t? Cushman gives the impression that that isn’t the case. Instead, her analysis points to Sequoyah aspiring towards a fidelity of Cherokee’s script to its oral counterpart naturally led it to very dissimilar structures with Roman alphabet.

One very notable overlap does exists between Sequoyan and some understandings of early writings, and that is its connection to accounting (Cushman 37). This minor point within a paragraph near the end of chapter one astounded me simply because it caused me to rethink the romantic image I had been creating around Sequoyan, which caused me to imagine Sequoyah as a poet mystic in love with writing. I feel like I have been on somewhat of a rampage of thoughts these past few weeks regarding everything I know, and ascribing much of it to the writing literacies I have been infected with. And reading this sentence frankly brought a measure of sanity back to me because perhaps it means that writing literacies relationship with counting does not automatically cause a removal in the manner imagined by Walter J. Ong. What I now wonder know is whether those of marginalized groups can and should work together to create writing technologies that similarly preserve and facilitate the development of themselves outside of white supremacist patriarchy. With the collaborative possibilities of the internet, and digital computing to aid us, would it be possible, and more importantly, would it change anything?

 

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