Deep in a cave, Cherokee texts still have much to teach


A unique writing system encodes the sorrow and pride of Native Americans, from almost two centuries ago. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Sequoyah's syllabary is still used today in Cherokee communities.

Marilyn Angel Wynn/Getty Images

Working deep underground in a vast cavern system in modern-day Alabama, in the south-eastern United States, scientists have been translating messages written on cave walls by spiritual leaders of the Cherokee Native Americans in the early to mid-1800s, set down in a unique system of writing.

A union of Native and Euro-American scholars has pieced together a story that tells of spiritual beliefs, a clash of civilisations, and of a people striving to preserve their cultural traditions. The results are published in the journal Antiquity.

Led by anthropologist Jan Simek from the University of Tennessee, the researchers reveal that Manitou Cave, where the writings are located, wasn’t formally mapped until 2009 but was a notable Alabama tourist destination as early as 1888. In the early twentieth century, the cave entrance and interior were even partially excavated to facilitate visitor access.

From the 1700s onwards, Native Americans had been driven from their homelands in the east. Some wanted to avoid political and social interaction with whites, while others believed appeasement and assimilation were the only ways to survive.

The issue of Native land rights culminated in 1830 when US President Andrew Jackson, ignoring the directives of the Supreme Court, signed the Indian Removal Act, which mandated ethnic cleansing of native people from east of the Mississippi River. The US army forcibly moved them west towards their designated lands in modern-day Oklahoma. The infamous “Trail of Tears” was mostly complete by 1839.

The writing system used in Manitou Cave, called a syllabary, was invented by a Cherokee scholar named Sequoyah. His English name was George Guess, or Gist, and his birth date is given as between 1760 and 1765. The syllabary was formally adopted as the official Cherokee writing system in 1825.

The Cherokee Nation website gives a detailed explanation of the origins of Sequoyah’s system: “After a long study, he realised that there were 85 individual syllables, which were used to make up the many words of the Cherokee language.

“He was then able to limit the symbols to a much smaller number than he originally developed and they could be used in combinations to form any word.”

Simek and his colleagues, who include Beau Duke Carroll, from the University of Tennessee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, reports that the syllabary “was precise, accurate, elegant and, perhaps most importantly, easy to learn. Within a few months of its public introduction, the system had spread across the tribe and, by the time removal was complete, most Cherokee people were literate.”

Sequoyah invented the system while living in a Cherokee community called Willstown, today’s Fort Payne, Alabama. There were several caves in the area, including Manitou.

Long before whites came to Willstown, the paper says, Cherokees and earlier Native Americans used the cave.

“Until now,” the researchers write, “these indigenous uses have remained unrecorded, as subsequent Historic-period alterations in the cave removed most typical archaeological evidence, such as artefacts and stratified cultural deposits.

“Still, the Cherokee and their antecedents considered caves to be powerful places: places where water emerged from the lower world, where the spiritual and visible worlds were close, and where the living could seek spiritual strength in seclusion.”

They add that the syllabary inscriptions on the walls of Manitou Cave “record first-person accounts of how 19th-century Cherokees used and viewed the cave context”.

“This article presents these new discoveries for the first time,” they continue.

“We also present an indigenous archaeology of the cave, representing a collaborative research effort between Cherokee and Euro-American scholars. While our results confirm some of the general interpretations previously proposed for ancient Native American cave use in the American south-east, they also develop a richer and more textured understanding of Manitou Cave.

“This has been possible only through engagement by Cherokee scholars who can read and give meaning to the inscriptions and their context.”

The cave is a cavern 1.67 kilometres long. Simek and colleagues focused on two areas in which Cherokee inscriptions are extensive and where their meanings can be translated.

The first is more than 1.5 kilometres into the cave’s main passage; the second about 300 metres from the entrance.

“Each area contains multiple inscriptions, and one inscription in the deeper area includes a written date,” the researchers write.

“All the inscriptions in the two areas concern ceremonial and/or spiritual matters; they were probably made in the seclusion of the cave and were not intended for general audiences.

“With this in mind, we provide only limited translation of inscriptions that contain culturally sensitive material.”

At first glance, it might be surprising to find that the authors believe these inscriptions, deep inside a cavern, “reflect the use of this remote passage as a place where a Cherokee ball team went to water before and during a stickball contest in April 1828”.

As was (and still is) typical,” they continue, “they were led and guided in their preparations by a religious leader, Richard Guess [whom the authors believe to be a son of Sequoyah], who left a written record of the event on the cave walls”.

The authors explain, however, that stickball was far more than just a sporting contest: “White missionaries within the Cherokee settlements, including Willstown, were opposed to traditional religious activities, such as the stickball game, and they made their views clear in church to tribal members.”

Further, they note the seclusion of the site, more a kilometre into the cave’s dark zone.

“Why might this be?” they ask. “In the late 1820s, tensions were high among different Cherokee factions. Some favoured the accommodation of white culture, while others preferred traditional lifeways. Privacy for such events may, therefore, have been even more important than usual to traditionalist practitioners.”

The report emphasises that “the ceremonial and exclusive nature of the activities recorded in these inscriptions suggest that caves were considered as powerful, private locales by the historic Cherokee”.

The second set of inscriptions featured in the report, nearer the cave entrance, is within the historic cave tour zone, and positioned 10 to 15 metres overhead on the flat ceiling of a wide and high section of the main passage.

One of the ceiling inscriptions translates roughly as “I am your grandson”. This, say the researchers, “is how Cherokees might formally address ‘Old Ones’, or Cherokee ancestors”.

When comparing photographs of the ceiling writings and their text versions, the researchers discovered that the ceiling inscriptions were written backwards, “as if addressing readers inside the rock itself, rather than in the passage below”.

“We recorded several isolated syllabary elements along the main passage walls closer to the entrance that are also reversed,” they continue. “Why might these texts be oriented in this way?”

The answer may be found in the previous mention of the “Old Ones”, a category of invisible spiritual beings.

“While Old Ones can include deceased Cherokee ancestors, they can also comprise other supernatural beings who inhabited the world before the Cherokee came into existence,” Simek and colleagues explain.

“Hence, the inverted writing on the ceiling could be explained if Manitou Cave was viewed as a portal to the spirit world – the words or phrases must be written backwards to be legible to spiritual residents.”

The authors expand their report’s context with the observation that the inscriptions indicate that caves were regarded by Cherokees as spiritually potent places, where wall embellishment was appropriate in the context of ceremonial action.

“This is precisely how older cave drawings in the American south-east have been viewed, some of which date back thousands of years and comprise representational and abstract motifs, rather than text,” they write.

“Manitou Cave shows continuity in how caves were seen and used by south-eastern Native American peoples into the removal period.

“This is not to say that Cherokees were the only people to communicate using cave walls. It does, however, confirm that parietal decorations reflected the ceremonial use of caves for active engagement with spiritual matters. These were sacred spaces rather than art galleries. This may be relevant to cave art around the world.”

A deeply moving postscript ends the report: “The Cherokees are still here despite murder and ethnic cleansing. Manitou Cave displays their cultural strength for all to see.”

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/talking-stones-cherokee-syllabary-in-manitou-cave-alabama/860758497F5CC21BE060D5A1E73F2205
  2. https://cherokee.org/News/Stories/Archive_2014/032414-Cherokee-Nation-officials-commemorate-175-years-since-the-Trail-of-Tears
  3. https://cherokee.org/About-The-Nation/History/Facts/Sequoyah-and-the-Cherokee-Syllabary
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