Native Americans use many different forms of communication, including spoken and written languages. Thomas Jefferson was one of the early collectors of indigenous languages. He realized that language study was crucial not just for communicating with different tribes, but also for preserving cultures threatened by expanding white settlement and government policies (including his own as President).
Native writing, however, existed long before Jefferson’s time. The pictorial glyphs of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, which are well-documented in the APS collections, may be the most famous form of indigenous writing. Though these glyphs puzzled scholars for centuries, many have now been deciphered, revealing long, detailed histories and complex calendrical systems.
Other indigenous peoples also communicated using pictures and symbols. Petroglyphs carved in stone are found all over North America. Wampum belts, beaded with shells, commemorated important events and were used as currency in colonial New England. And tribal leaders often used pictographs as signatures on treaties or other documents.
Eclectic scholar Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was fascinated by pictographs. In the 1830s, he published the “Walam Olum,” which he claimed was a Lenni-Lenape creation story in pictographic form. Although Rafinesque’s ideas continue to be controversial, his writings on Native languages were influential throughout the century.
Beginning around 1809, Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah invented a syllabary, a character for each syllable in his native tongue, thus enabling it to be written and read for the first time. Sequoyah’s work is a landmark in linguistics, as he is the only known person who has ever independently created an entirely new writing system for an existing language.