The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing The People’s Perseverance, by Ellen Cushman
As someone who is of part-Cherokee ancestry  but not a member of the Cherokee Nation, I suppose I am part of the ideal audience of this book. This book is written in English by a scholar with a Cherokee background and slight knowledge of the language but is written clearly for those who are friendly to the Cherokee people, somewhat knowledgeable about their history, and at least prone to be friendly to the efforts of the Cherokee people for the persistence of their people and their history and their language. Given that few people appear to be particularly proficient in the written language at present, this book and others like it are making a bid for cultural survival through the encouragement of resources in time and support to make it no longer a stigma for people to learn a somewhat revolutionary written language, the subject of this deeply nuanced and politically-inclined book. I wish to make it plain that while I have a guarded support for the cultural efforts of the author to encourage knowledge of and respect for the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah in the early 19th century, there are elements of this book I found deeply troubling and aspects of the author’s argument I do not agree with.
The book itself is about two hundred pages in length and contains eight chapters. After a list of figures, tables, a preface and lengthy acknowledgments and a note about conventions, the author introduces the subject of her book and her desire to support the perseverance of the Cherokee people. The first chapter looks at Sequoyah and the politics of language, in his deliberate desire to show himself (falsely) as being largely unaware of English in his creation of a glyphic language that managed to capture both the morphemes of the Cherokee language as well as encode some aspect of the meaning in the design of the characters themselves. The next three chapters detail this thesis of the author’s in considerable detail, looking at the syllabary as a writing system, the design of the characters/glyphs, and the transition from the manuscript to the print form of the language. The author then looks at Elias Boudinot’s efforts as the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix to portray the goals and struggles and perspective of the Cherokee people to friendly outsiders, much as the author seeks to do with this book. After that comes three closing chapters that examine the survival and use of the Cherokee writing system during the periods of 1840-1920, 1920-1980, and since 1980. The tone throughout is one of righteous indignation, warm partisanship, and cautious and guarded optimism.
Nevertheless, there are some aspects of this book that are worthy of criticism. For example, it is unclear if the author herself is sufficiently knowledgeable about the Cherokee language to write about it in such depth. To make the sort of claims that she does about the multiple layers of meaning in the Cherokee syllabary, it would have increased her credibility for her to be more knowledgeable in the language itself. Likewise, the author’s sense of partisanship is more than a little bit of a turnoff for those readers who come to this book with some awareness of the nuanced and complicated history of the Cherokee people. The author wishes to defend the perspective of the corrupt John Ross party among the Cherokee and glosses over the anarchy and violence that resulted from the desire of Cherokees to settle scores over the troubled Treaty of New Echota. Specifically, the author fails to show any sort of understanding of what drove Georgia Cherokee to sign a treaty despite knowing the disapproval of the Cherokee themselves of removal, or to acknowledge that in the circumstances of the time that the treaty was likely the best deal that the Cherokee were going to get in an immensely hostile political and cultural climate. Likewise, the author’s obvious bias towards Cherokee religious beliefs and cultural traditions is rather off-putting to those of us who are Christian, as it smacks of the left-wing multiculturalism that is one of our age’s more serious cultural problems. There is much in this book to enjoy and appreciate, and a great deal more to ponder and muse over, but certainly a great deal worthy of criticism as well. A strong concern for the well-being of the Cherokee people does not mean supporting a leftist cultural agenda, something this author appears not to realize.
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