Basics of the Cherokee Syllabary: Tools and Resources for Incorporating Cherokee Culture Into Youth Activities

— Written By

Image of Cherokee language

Photo Credit: Language Museum

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) are the only federally-recognized Native American tribe in North Carolina. The tribe owns a 56,000-acre tract of land in rural western North Carolina that is known as the Qualla Boundary. Anthropologists estimate that the Cherokee people have existed for over 10,000 years; cultivating their own society, language, and culture.

The Cherokee language is currently categorized as endangered according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Additionally, the Tri-Council of the Cherokee People (consisting of the EBCI, Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians) has proclaimed that the language is in a state of emergency. There are less than 210 fluent speakers of the Kituwah (gi-doo-ah) dialect spoken in North Carolina.

An easy way to increase youth exposure to the Cherokee language with 4-H club meetings, 4-H programs, or other community youth development entities is to incorporate simple activities and resources about the Cherokee syllabary writing system.

Activity #1: Research Facts about the Cherokee Language

Youth can utilize the Internet or books from a local library to research different facts about the Cherokee language and Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary. Add an element of public speaking into the activity by having youth create display boards about their facts and present to parents/peers about what they have learned.

Activity #2: Learn to Recite the Cherokee Syllabary

Youth can watch a video reciting the sounds of the Cherokee syllabary, as they differ from English, Spanish, and many other languages in which they may have been exposed.

Recommended video link: ‘Cherokee Syllabary & Flash Cards,’ Andrew Owens, 2:47  

In addition, have youth use a Cherokee syllabary chart to practice reciting the letters in pairs.

A printable syllabary chart can be found here: Cherokee Syllabary Handout

Activity #3: Trace the Letters of the Cherokee Syllabary 

Use the worksheet found on page four of this resource to have youth practice tracing the different letters in the Cherokee syllabary.

Resource Link: Trace the Cherokee Syllabary (found on page 4)

Activity #4: Play Memory Games with Cherokee Syllabary Flashcards

Print copies of the Cherokee syllabary flashcards and have youth cut out and decorate their flashcards. They can use a variety of colors, use English words that help them remember the sound of that letter, or glue them to decorative scrapbooking paper. Have youth use these to study the Cherokee syllabary and pass a Cherokee syllabary test at a later time.

Use two copies of the flashcards to create a ‘memory game’ where youth have to match the letters. This would be best on the floor or on multiple tables because of the number of letters. 

Tape one of each flashcard to a wall and divide youth into teams, with each team getting a fly swatter. Call out a letter and the first team to ‘slap’ the letter on the wall wins that round.

Resource Link: Cherokee Syllabary Flashcards

Activity #5: Study to Pass a Cherokee Syllabary Test

Youth can study with their flashcards and then see how well they can do on a Cherokee syllabary test.

Resource link: Cherokee Syllabary Test

Activity #6: Watch and Discuss the movie ‘First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee’

Watch the 1-hour movie ‘First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee.’  This video can be found for free use on YouTube (see Video Resources below). Offer popcorn and flavored water to the youth to make it a ‘movie night’ theme. After the movie, ask youth meaningful discussion questions; some foundation questions are provided below:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you feel after watching this movie?
  2. What is the most important ‘takeaway’ you have from this movie?
  3. Can you imagine how you would feel if your culture’s language was not spoken?
  4. What is one thing you can do to help this situation?

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Hendricks Life Skills: Concern for Others, Accepting Differences, Empathy, Critical Thinking, Learning to Learn

Video Resources:

‘Creating a Written Alphabet for the Cherokee,’ American Experience: PBS, 1:17

‘Investigating the Cherokee Syllabary,’ Cherokee Nation, 3:10

‘First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee,’ The Language & Life Project, 56:08

‘Cherokee Language Technology,’ Cherokee Nation, 5:09

‘The Cherokee Syllabary,’ The Language & Life Project, 3:14

‘We’re Still Here: The Cherokee Syllabary,’ Smithsonian NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian), 1:33