Monthly Archives: July 2011

Talking Leaves

There is a campaign being hatched to increase the take up of literacy in my own fair city. It is something I plan to get involved with if I can, particularly as people I know and respect are also involved in this very worthy aim.

It is human nature to forget the past and to take things for granted. Literacy is just one of those precious things; something that enables us as individuals and communities to make things better for ourselves. There are few things as important. To see just how important literacy is, history provides us numerous examples of how pre-literate cultures have embraced the written word to help them survive, thrive and hold their own in an ever shrinking world. And here’s the big lesson: literacy empowers you like few other things can.

So let me tell you a little story. It is the story of one man who started out an illiterate and under unfortunate circumstances. His name was Sequoyah, he was born a Cherokee Indian around about the time of US Independence (1770s) in Tennessee and travelled widely throughout the new nation pushing his big idea. An idea that made the Cherokee unique among the Native American nations in North America. Sequoyah invented the Cherokee Alphabet and set about spreading its use throughout all the lands where his people were scattered. His success was remarkable.

The Cherokee Alphabet (of 86 symbols, based on syllable groups), took off because of its obvious advantages to the scattered population of Cherokee speakers. They could now write letters to far-flung family and friends, send messages to each other without talking out loud and do all the things the White Man was doing (often to the detriment of the native peoples). Sequoyah’s Alphabet put the Cherokee on a similar cultural footing with the Whites, it helped to lead their culture in new directions as their culture became one where literacy was the norm. In 1828 the first newspaper launched in a Native American language, The Cherokee Phoenix, was published. Native Americans now had their own ‘talking leaves’ (as they called the written papers that their invaders carried).

Today the written Cherokee language is thriving with poets, novelists, song-writers, rappers and story-tellers all using it to keep their culture alive and express their own individuality. The Internets have also (perhaps a little belatedly) added the Cherokee Alphabet to the Unicode while Apple have installed it in their machines as well (not sure if mobile phones have it yet, but I suspect there’s an App for it either out there or in development).

Sequoyah himself died trying to reach scattered bands of his people outside the US (as it was then) in Texas. His dream was to unite his people through language (including all Native Americans: he had a plan to develop a common alphabet for all ‘First Nations’, sadly he died before it was completed), he succeeded spectacularly. Sequoyah’s house, if you care to take a visit, honours his memory with the reverence reserved for heroes – to me that is exactly what he was.

So I certainly look forward to helping out with Get Leicester Reading. Can the talking leaves of the Cherokee take root here? It would be great if they did.

ian sneath

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