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The Cherokee Alphabet

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The sacred Cherokee formulas had been handed down orally from a remote antiquity until the early part of the present century, when the invention of the Cherokee syllabary enabled the priests of the tribe to put them into writing. The same invention made it possible for their rivals, the missionaries, to give to the Indians the Bible in their own language, so that the opposing forces of Christianity and shamanism alike profited by the genius of Sikwâya (Sequoyah). The pressure of the new civilization was too strong to be withstood, however, and though the prophets of the old religion still have much influence with the people, they are daily losing ground and will soon be without honor in their own country.

Such an exposition of the aboriginal religion could be obtained from no other tribe in North America, for the simple reason that no other tribe has an alphabet of its own in which to record its sacred lore. It is true that the Crees and Micmacs of Canada and the Tukuth of Alaska have so-called alphabets or ideographic systems invented for their use by the missionaries, while, before the Spanish conquest, the Mayas of Central America were accustomed to note down their hero legends and priestly ceremonials in hieroglyphs graven upon the walls of their temples or painted upon tablets made of the leaves of the maguey. But it seems never to have occurred to the northern tribes that an alphabet coming from a missionary source could be used for any other purpose than the transcription of bibles and catechisms, while the sacred books of the Mayas, with a few exceptions, have long since met destruction at the hands of fanaticism, and the modern copies which have come down to the present day are written out from imperfect memory by Indians who had been educated under Spanish influences in the language, alphabet and ideas of the conquerors, and who, as is proved by an examination of the contents of the books themselves, drew from European sources a great part of their material. Moreover, the Maya tablets were so far hieratic as to be understood only by the priests and those who had received a special training in this direction, and they seem therefore to have been entirely unintelligible to the common people.

The Cherokee alphabet, on the contrary, is the invention or adaptation of one of the tribe, who, although he borrowed most of the Roman letters, in addition to the forty or more characters of his own devising, knew nothing of their proper use or value, but reversed them or altered their forms to suit his purpose, and gave them a name and value determined by himself. This alphabet was at once adopted by the tribe for all purposes for which writing can be used, including the recording of their shamanistic prayers and ritualistic ceremonies. The formulas here given, as well as those of the entire collection, were written out by the shamans themselves-men who adhere to the ancient religion and speak only their native language-in order that their sacred knowledge might be preserved in a systematic manner for their mutual benefit. The language, the conception, and the execution are all genuinely Indian, and hardly a dozen lines of the hundreds of formulas show a trace of the influence of the white man or his religion. The formulas contained in these manuscripts are not disjointed fragments of a system long since extinct, but are the revelation of a living faith which still has its priests and devoted adherents, and it is only necessary to witness a ceremonial ball play, with its fasting, its going to water, and its mystic bead manipulation, to understand how strong is the hold which the old faith yet has upon the minds even of the younger generation. The numerous archaic and figurative expressions used require the interpretation of the priests, but, as before stated, the alphabet in which they are written is that in daily use among the common people.


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