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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Rare Books Collection: A Rare Volume of Cherokee Laws

The Riesenfeld Center has a strong collection of American Indian law, with holdings of treaties concluded between the United States government and native tribes in the nineteenth century. Featured in the collection are also letters, petitions, reports, and other communications between various tribes and the federal government; constitutions and laws made by native communities; and other publications that deal with important questions related to sovereignty, land rights, and internal organization, among others. Together the material chronicles the difficult, often painful, history of relations between American indigenous communities and the government. At the same time, it sheds light on tribal lawmaking, courts, and important aspects of social and political self-determination in the 19th and 20th century.

Among this rich material, laws relating to the Cherokee Nation in particular are varied and notable. Many items reflect attempts by the nation to maintain autonomy and communal land in Indian Territory (IT), today part of Oklahoma, to which most Cherokee were forcibly removed as a result of the Trail of Tears. A collection item (above) that captures the significance of printed law within the Cherokee community is a very rare compilation of laws, produced in 1852 in Tahlequah, IT, the nation's capital from 1839. The laws are printed in the Cherokee language, based on a syllabary developed by the famed Sequoyah, who developed a writing system for the language in the early 1800s. Sequoyah was revered for the work: Cherokee printers published in Cherokee and many Cherokee learned to read it in the 1820s. The printing of laws at Tahlequah began in 1841. From the beginning, legal texts could be found in English and Cherokee, though Cherokee language editions are particularly scarce today. Our 1852 volume, collecting earlier laws, was printed by John Candy and Mark Tyger (Damaga). The translation into Cherokee was likely by Hercules T. Martin together with Joseph Blackbird. In our copy, and as in some family Bibles, the names of one generation of the Fodder family are written out (on left-hand page above), including Sequoyah, who was likely named after the founder of the writing system. The book suggests the personal, familial, and tribal significance that a collection of law could carry, particularly one produced in the Cherokee language. 

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections  

Original Cherokee syllabary
Original Cherokee syllabary




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