- Sovereignty through Print: New Type, and a New Letterpress-printed Book, in the Cherokee Syllabary
Luzene was my paternal grandmother’s name, and when I was named for her I was defined by a Cherokee word. The literal meaning of that word is lost, as far as I’ve discovered, but the name holds a part of my family history—one that has come to inform my art and has determined the direction of much of my work.
I grew up in Atlanta with my white mother and grandparents. We made regular summer visits to Cherokee, North Carolina, but I heard the language spoken only on rare occasions. Both my father’s parents had been sent, against their parents’ wishes, to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, founded in the late nineteenth century by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt in the wake of the U.S. government’s massive forced relocations of Native peoples. Pratt infamously followed the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The school required children to speak English only, enacting a program of nonvoluntary, often violently enforced assimilation that continued, in schools across the United States, until 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act gave parents the right to refuse having their children placed in boarding schools. As a result of their experience, neither of my grandparents spoke their language to their children, nor did they teach it to me. I was taught to have pride in my Cherokee culture, but it was an intellectual exposure, very different from growing up and living on the reservation.
I began studying art in my early [End Page 106] thirties, but family responsibilities made it necessary for me to set the work aside for nearly fifteen years. When I returned to it, I worked in the abstract expressionist style and focused primarily on the human figure. One day in 1996 I was in my studio in front of the paper, without any subject in mind, and an image came to me of bones in an archaeological dig. Archaeology has always been an interest of mine, and I had visited various sites around Georgia—the Etowah Indian mounds in Carterville, the Ocmulgee mounds in Macon. Working from photos of digs in north Georgia, I created a series titled In de Soto’s Path. The work was shown in 1997 at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest market for Native American art. It was my first exhibition of any kind.
I continued drawing and painting, then moved into sculpture and multimedia installations. In 2006, hoping to devote more time to my art and to explore my Cherokee culture, I moved to North Carolina. I wanted my work to contribute to knowledge of Native American culture and issues among non-Native people, and I knew I needed to begin by learning more myself. The effort felt urgent: Cherokee, like hundreds of indigenous languages around the world, is endangered. A survey begun by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation in 2005 identified 460 fluent speakers living in Cherokee communities, and 72 percent of them were over fifty years old. According to Bo Lossiah, director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and Hartwell Francis, director of the Cherokee language program at Western Carolina University, there are now only two hundred speakers of the language in Western North Carolina.
Still, the language has endured remarkably, given the trauma to which colonists and the U.S. government subjected its speakers. This is in large part thanks to Sequoyah (Ssi-qua-ya), a Cherokee silversmith and scholar who, in the early nineteenth century, gave Cherokee a written form. Rather than creating an alphabet, Sequoyah made a syllabary—a system of symbols, each representing a syllable. The Cherokee syllabary is composed of eighty-five symbols. He created it over a period of twelve years, completing it in 1821. It is the only written language ever developed by one person. Soon after, as letterpress printer and book artist Frank Brannon describes in his 2005 artist’s book Cherokee Phoenix: Advent of a Newspaper, a typeface that would be used to print in the language was created, and was cast as lead type by a firm in...