Bringing the Cherokee Syllabary to the Spotlight, Jeff Edwards

Sequoyah © Jeff Edwards

By Celestine J. Epps

Published first in the Blue Banner, UNCA

“A Living Language” exhibition celebrated recently the cultural and national identity of artists from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian (EBCI) in downtown Tokiyasdi / Asheville, NC. The curated works on display at the Asheville Art Museum consisted of over 50 multimedia pieces by EBCI artists who direct audiences’ attention to the Cherokee syllabary. 

Their artwork defies the bias that Indigenous languages are dead by uplifting local Indigenous creators who help to restore the language. A variety of compositions such as Rachel Foster’s stone-polished ceramic “Sequoyah,” show traditional representations of Tsalagi, or Cherokee, in cultural artifacts like pottery and basket-weaving. Likewise, the graphic designs of Jeff Edwards puts on a prideful display of the syllabary, and inspires viewers to want to learn how to speak it. His piece “Tsalagiopoly” is delightfully shocking.

The syllabary was invented by a Cherokee man named Sequoyah in the early 19th-century who translated the 4000-year-old language into visual symbols and the written form we know today. 

Tsalagiopoly © Jeff Edwards

Edwards is also a Language Technology Specialist for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He contributes to the language education in schools and ensures that students are equipped with the technology needed to be successful. In 2010, the artist worked with fluent speakers to integrate Tsalagi into system keyboards on devices including Apple, Android, Microsoft, and Google

Edwards says: “What started our 10+ years of working with tech companies is we wanted our kids to be able to text in Cherokee. That was it. Nothing more. So, we worked with Apple for about 18 months and once the technology came available we saw something we didn’t expect. Our elders also took advantage of the technology. So not only were our students and elders communicating but they were also communicating with each other.”

Trickster © Jeff Edwards

Upon completion of the keyboard, Edwards explains the labor involved in translating entire operating systems and its impact on Cherokee people throughout the diaspora: 

“So, when we started translating Windows 8 we had 18 months to complete the project. We had the 5 regular employees and some contract translators that were from various communities. We would receive 500-1000 words a day, I would do my thing, split them up evenly amongst the available translators, email the project out and when they finished they would send them back, I would submit and we continued this for 18 months with very little breaks. It is tough to say how many words were translated. It was well over the 300,000 range. But once the project was completed Microsoft in North America recognized two languages, English and Cherokee.”

Despite the nation’s success in making Tsalagi accessible on major platforms, they were forced to stop working with tech companies due to the endangered state of the language. There are only 176 people still living in the Eastern Band who grew up speaking Tsalagi and an estimate of 2,000 speakers left in the United States. Thus, prioritizing second-language speakers in tribal communities.

“A Living Languages” exhibit lived up to its name in its selection of pieces from Cherokee artists across generations. While navigating his busy schedule, Edwards continues to make original graphics. His latest piece, “Relocate, and/or Die” drew inspiration from Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoon intended to unite the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

Relocate and/or die © Jeff Edwards

Edwards explains: “My piece is made on a backdrop of a map of the Trail of Tears and the routes taken in Cherokee. My Uktena is cut into 8 pieces to represent the 8 states the tribes traveled through during removal and the Uktena has 5 buttons on his rattle to represent the 5 tribes that were forcibly removed from their homelands.”

“Anger can be a very good motivator.”

Ultimately, what inspires Jeff Edwards the most is bringing the syllabary to the spotlight.

“I try to showcase something that all Cherokee’s are proud of, our writing system.”

After seeing the exhibition multiple times, I was immediately drawn to Edwards’s work, especially “Tsalagiopoly.” Upon first glance, I recognized the similarity to the game Monopoly, and all that it represents in our western capitalist society. 

Edwards’s intricate designs and sole use of Tsalagi communicate to a specific audience that is uniquely Indigenous. I believe his piece speaks volumes to first and second-language speakers. To participate in the game, you have to be able to understand the rules, but Tsalagiopoly breaks one’s expectations. With the syllabary as the centerpiece of his work, non-Tsalagi speakers like myself are stuck at collecting $200, incapable of moving forward.

The longer I examine the artwork, the more I wish to comprehend the nuggets of history, and cultural references embedded in the cards I imagine in the community chest space. Like anger, ignorance is a great motivator to understanding the language of the land that I stand on.

More About Jeff Edwards

About Celestine J. Epps

Celestine J. Epps was born in Bronx, New York, on April 16, 2000. She is studying Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and is currently the assistant Arts and Features Editor at the Blue Banner. She enjoys learning about global Indigenous communities, including the Haliwa-Saponi near her grandmother’s hometown. Upon graduation, Celestine would like to write about her conversations with Indigenous storytellers and the impact of their artistry across generations.

Bringing the Cherokee Syllabary to the Spotlight, Jeff Edwards © Celestine J. Epps - Siwar Mayu, April 2022

Animating Cherokee Narratives. Joseph Erb

By Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

If you prefer to read as PDF, please click HERE

At the turn of the century, animation was not the first option for Indigenous artists. Actually, when Joseph ᎧᎾᏘ Erb (Cherokee Nation) drove from Oklahoma to Philadelphia to do his Graduate Studies in Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, he wanted to be trained in sculpture. However, some days before he arrived, there was an accident in one of the sculpture studios, and the program he was interested in was all but canceled. Since he did not not know exactly what to do, some professors motivated him to go into animation. While learning this new art, someone asked him: “Why don’t you try Cherokee stories?” This was in the early 2000´s, and that question opened a door through which Joseph Erb has refined his aesthetics and traditional narratives, elevating Indigenous animation to a new level. “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ” was the first Cherokee animation in Tsalagi, the Cherokee language. Since its production, Joseph Erb has expanded the use of Cherokee ​​language in technology, cinema and education. Currently, ​he teaches at the University of Missouri Digital Storytelling and Animation.  

In “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ”, Grandpa Beaver, Little Water Beetle, and the Great Buzzard work  together somehow to create what today we call the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. It is not just the use of Tsalagi and the syllabary that makes this short animated movie Cherokee, but also the way the elder-ones talk respectfully with each other, and are comfortable with their long silences. Furthermore, small pieces of a complex cosmology are shared in these stories such as the relevance of the numbers 4 and 7, or references to specific places where the community gathers medicines. As Erb explains, not all audiences pay attention to these details, and Indigenous animation is sometimes classified as “fiction” or “myth” in film festivals. Nevertheless, Erb prefers to call his art “traditional narratives”, because –as the animation title above suggests– these stories are still being told, believed, and followed by some members of the community. These short animations are not about supernatural beings, but contemporary representations of stories –which have many versions– that teach how to walk in “the proper way” (Duyuktv.) 

When you ask Joseph Erb about the challenges of doing what he does, he has plenty of stories to explain. Indigenous animation is not just about designs and aesthetics, but also about having the right tools, resources and technology. For instance, the software, app, or program being used needs to offer the syllabary keyboard and include the appropriate fonts to represent the language. This special consideration requires  establishing relationships with big companies such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. Once you finally have the technology, you would never imagine that the syllabary font has to be approved at some point by the tribe, because the digital version is a different one than the 1820’s type that some elders are accustomed to. Now, after all of those negotiations –extra work– with both tech companies and the tribe, imagine that  the moment to share your work has arrived. If the animation’s voice over is in Tsalagi (the Cherokee language), then you hope the non-Tsalagi-speakers will engage with the version with English subtitles, which is not something that some audiences enjoy. At these crossroads, Erb’s art finds the proper way to represent Cherokee narratives  between codes, channels, and audiences. As Erb told me, elders who he worked with in “The Beginning They Told / ᏗᏓᎴᏂᏍᎬ ᎤᏂᏃᎮᏓ” were really excited about the possibility of seeing the Great Buzzard represented for the first time in this code. “A couple of elders made me actually animate it”, said Erb laughing.

The first animation that I encountered by Joseph Erb was “Mini Wiconi / Water is Life”, an artivist piece dedicated to the protectors of water at Standing Rock Sioux Nation. As voice over, Standing Rock Chief David Archambault II guides the animation with a clear message. Black uniforms over a red horizon in which fences disrupt the land are juxtaposed with black and red buffalo running free through the great prairies. How can an artist adequately represent the fact that 31 million buffalo were slaughtered at some point as a settler-colonial stratagem? Mountains of buffalo skulls in white fill the screen so the snake/train –a metaphor for progress and extractivism throughout Abiayala– can cross. Instead of the rhythm of buffalo’s hooves on the land, we suddenly  can hear only  bulldozers. Led by women, all types of peoples, all nations will always protect water for future generations. No Dakota Access Pipeline.

When I asked Erb about his vision for the future of Indigenous animation and game design, he was excited about the possibilities for indigenizing “narrative structures” with those unique flavors that place and community can add to creativity. “A place-based robust aesthetics” is Joseph Erb’s advice for younger Indigenous designers. One of his latest projects is Trickster, an app-video game in which the player drives the journey of a young person who is rescuing words in Tsalagi within a forest. While the player enjoys the obstacles and visuals (i.e. tree bark tattooed with Mississippian designs, or the underworld patterned as a basket), everytime he hits a word, they are able to listen one of the beautiful languages of one of the first peoples of the Appalachian mountains, the Cherokee.

Trickster. An app-video game by Joseph Erb

More about Indigenous animation and Joseph Erb

About Juan G. Sánchez Martínez

He grew up in Bakatá/Bogotá, Colombian Andes. He dedicates both his creative and scholarly writing to indigenous cultural expressions from Abiayala (the Americas.) His book of poetry, Altamar, was awarded in 2016 with the National Prize Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. He coordinates Siwar Mayu, A River of Hummingbirds. Recent work: Bejuco (2021), Muyurina y el presente profundo (Pakarina/Hawansuyo, 2019); and Cinema, Literature and Art Against Extractivism in Latin America. Dialogo 22.1 (DePaul University, 2019.) He is currently Associate Professor of Languages and Literatures, and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

css.phpHosted by UNC Asheville and the Diversity Action Council