Signs of Cherokee Culture

Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life

By Margaret Bender

208 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 8 photos, 6 figs., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5376-4
    Published: June 2002
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6005-2
    Published: April 2003
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7409-2
    Published: April 2003

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Awards & distinctions

2004 Mooney Book Award, Southern Anthropological Society

Based on extensive fieldwork in the community of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, this book uses a semiotic approach to investigate the historic and contemporary role of the Sequoyan syllabary--the written system for representing the sounds of the Cherokee language--in Eastern Cherokee life.

The Cherokee syllabary was invented in the 1820s by the respected Cherokee Sequoyah. The syllabary quickly replaced alternative writing systems for Cherokee and was reportedly in widespread use by the mid-nineteenth century. After that, literacy in Cherokee declined, except in specialized religious contexts. But as Bender shows, recent interest in cultural revitalization among the Cherokees has increased the use of the syllabary in education, publications, and even signage.

Bender also explores the role played by the syllabary within the ever more important context of tourism. (The Eastern Cherokee Band hosts millions of visitors each year in the Great Smoky Mountains.) English is the predominant language used in the Cherokee community, but Bender shows how the syllabary is used in special and subtle ways that help to shape a shared cultural and linguistic identity among the Cherokees. Signs of Cherokee Culture thus makes an important contribution to the ethnographic literature on culturally specific literacies.

About the Author

Margaret Bender teaches linguistic and cultural anthropology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
For more information about Margaret Bender, visit the Author Page.


"Bender's thoughtful book sets a new standard for literacy studies among American Indians. . . . [It] raises a host of fascinating questions that should send anthropologists to the field and historians to the archives."--Claudio Saunt, University of Georgia, for American Anthropologist

"Provides a detailed explanation of the historical and contemporary uses and meaning of Sequoyah's syllabary."-Our State

"Margaret Bender has shown an interest and a willingness to become involved in our Cherokee culture with a particular emphasis on the language. The results of her studies are informative and enlightening to the Cherokee Language Project."--Jean L. Bushyhead, Project Manager, Cherokee Language Project

"Margaret Bender's work is dense in theory, yet easily understood when she presents supporting ethnographic data. Signs of Cherokee Culture illustrates the tenacity of the Cherokee to keep their culture and identity, defines the role and significance of the Sequoya syllabary, and adds an important volume on Native American literacy to the anthropologic literature."--James A. Bird, Cultural Resources Manager, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

"A nuanced ethnography of Eastern Cherokee literacy that documents the community's experiences with all forms of writing, both Cherokee and English. Her book explicates the historical and contemporary uses and significance of Sequoyah's syllabary, the most famous example of American Indian writing systems."--Raymond J. DeMallie, Professor of Anthropology and Director, American Indian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington