Manitou Cave Cherokee Inscriptions.

Megan Gannon reports for Smithsonian.com:

On April 30, 1828, a Cherokee stickball team stepped into the underworld to ask for help.

Carrying river-cane torches, the men walked into the mouth of Manitou Cave in Willstown, Alabama, and continued nearly a mile into the cave’s dark zone, past impressive flowstone formations in the wide limestone passageway. They stopped inside a damp, remote chamber where a spring emerged from the ground. They were far from the white settlers and Christian missionaries who had recently arrived in northeastern Alabama, putting increasing pressure on Native Americans to assimilate to a Euro-American way of life. (In just a few years President Andrew Jackson would sign the Indian Removal Act that would force the Cherokee off their land and onto the Trail of Tears.) Here, in private, the stickball team could perform important rituals—meditating, cleansing and appealing to supernatural forces that might give their team the right magic to win a game of stickball, a contest nicknamed “the little brother of war.”

This spiritual event, perhaps ordinary for the time but revelatory now, only recently became known because of a set of inscriptions found on the walls of the cave. A group of scholars have now translated the messages, left by the spiritual leader of the stickball team, and describe them in an article published today in the journal Antiquity. Prehistoric ancestors of the Cherokee left figurative paintings inside caves for centuries, but scholars didn’t know that Cherokee people also left written records—documents, really—on cave walls. The inscriptions described in the journal article offer a window into life among the Cherokee in the years immediately before they would be forcibly removed from the American southeast.

“I never thought I would be looking at documents in caves,” says study co-author Julie Reed, a historian of Native American history at Penn State and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The inscriptions were written in the Cherokee syllabary, a writing system that was formally adopted by the Cherokee just three years prior in 1825. It quickly allowed a majority of the tribe to become literate in their own language, and the Manitou Cave inscriptions are among a few rare examples of historic Cherokee writing recently found on the walls of caves. “Cavers have been going in caves in the Southeast for a really long time, looking for more prehistoric artwork,” says Beau Carroll, the lead author of the study and an archaeologist with the tribal historic preservation office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “For you to be able to pick out actual syllabary you have to be familiar with it. I think it’s all over the place. It’s just that nobody’s been looking for it.”

There’s more on the history of the tribe, the syllabary, and the discovery at the link, along with some good photos. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    The cave, which is on private land, was sold shortly after the first inscription was photographed, Simek says, and the new owner of the cave would not allow access to anyone. So Simek and his colleagues couldn’t document the writings for themselves until the cave changed hands again in 2015.

  2. he invented a syllabary—easier to learn than an alphabet—made up of symbols for all 85 syllables in the spoken language

    Why would a syllabary be easier to learn than an alphabet?

  3. January First-of-May says:

    Why would a syllabary be easier to learn than an alphabet?

    Presumably because it’s conceptually much easier to separate words into syllables than into individual vowels and consonants if you didn’t have the respective linguistic training.

    There start to be problems once the syllabary has too many symbols, but 85 is just about workable.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    stepped into the underworld to ask for help

    which, unfortunately, seems not to have been forthcoming. At all.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    In Japan it’s apparently normal for 3-year-olds to read hiragana fluently.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    which, unfortunately, seems not to have been forthcoming. At all.

    No, as far as I can tell, they just didn’t think to ask for sufficiently long-term help. Now I wonder what would have happened if they did… if I was any better on alternate history I would’ve probably done a TL on that.

  7. Wait, you guys know the outcome of stickball games from the 1820s?

  8. I take it you don’t subscribe to the Stickball Research Journal.

  9. John Cowan says:

    which, unfortunately, seems not to have been forthcoming. At all.

    Yes, well, Hell and help differ in more than just a consonant.

    Now I wonder what would have happened if they did… if I was any better on alternate history I would’ve probably done a TL on that.

    See Eric Flint’s AH novel 1812: The Rivers of War, in which (with a lot of help from Sam Houston) the Five Civilized Tribes voluntarily leave for the West in the 1810s instead of the 1830s with most of their wealth and power intact and form the Confederacy of the Arkansas. In this book and its sequel 1824: The Arkansas War, a great many free blacks (both freed and born free) move to Arkansas, forming effectively a sixth tribe. John Brown also moves to Arkansas, where slavery is rapidly being declared illegal, and so do lots of Europeans who prefer warmer weather than the North but don’t care to compete with slave labor. “But nothing will be done without the bloodiest blows…”

    Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Andrew Jackson forms an alliance with Thomas Hart Benton (!!) and John Quincy Adams (!!!) to bring down President Henry Clay and the slaveocracy. They form an AH National Democratic-Republican Party with a goal of gradual state-by-state emancipation and four principles: no restrictions on voting, property, movement or residence, or marriage due to race or color.

  10. January First-of-May says:

    The TL version I imagined was supposed to have a point of divergence in May 1828 or thereabouts. Possibly a little later. Not necessarily any better than OTL (for those of us who aren’t Native Americans, at least).

    Looking at the chronology, the obvious option seems to be the Tariff of Abominations not passing (somehow), ruining Andrew Jackson’s chance for the presidency – and incidentally also a bunch of other things relatively irrelevant to the Cherokees…

  11. John Cowan says:

    In Flint’s version the PoD is at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, where Houston is only slightly injured rather than seriously injured, and he becomes yet another war hero. The idea of the book was an AH without the Trail of Tears, but Flint concluded that Indian removal was in fact inevitable in any scenario, but better early than late.

    ObHat: The capital of Arkansas is called New Antrim in English (the Sachem of the Confederacy is a Napoleonic sergeant from Ireland), but its Cherokee name literally means ‘little rock’. ~~ snicker ~~

  12. If you visit Andrew Jackson’s (probable) birthplace here in South Carolina, they have an interesting narrative about Jackson’s conflicts with Calhoun. They argue that, while Jackson was just as racist as Calhoun, Jackson, being fifteen years older, had the Revolutionary War as a formative experience, which led him to support a strong central government, even when that conflicted with Southern and Western regional interests. Calhoun, in contrast, supported centralization of authority only up until in interfered with the interests of the Southern planter class

  13. Indian removal was in fact inevitable in any scenario, but better early than late.

    I really dislike this kind of thinking.

    “Your honor! This wallet inevitably would have been stolen in any scenario, but better early than late”

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Your honor! This wallet inevitably would have been stolen in any scenario, but better early than late”

    Not in Japan it wouldn’t. At a meeting in Tokyo two years ago my wife and I had both given talks the same day, and we were both very tired, but we had to take a train to get back to our hotel. I left my bag with all my money, documents, credit cards, passport, plane tickets, etc., on the train. I realized on getting back to our room. When we told a group of people in the lobby who had been at the meeting, one of them, who had done a post-doc in Japan and could speak basic Japanese, said, don’t worry, it will be in the lost-property office in the station. Fortunately the station was only five minutes walk away, and the lost-property office was there, as it was the end of the line, so we didn’t need to travel half way across Tokyo to find it. He found a picture of a bag like mine in his iPhone, and when he showed it to the man in the lost-property office he jumped up and down in excitement and brought it immediately. I showed him the picture of me in my passport, and he was satisfied it was me and gave the bag to me. Nothing was missing.

    Is there anywhere apart from Japan where that story would have had a happy ending? Maybe it might have, but I don’t think there are many places where one could be confident.

  15. SFReader says:

    I once found a smartphone while walking on the street. It was password-protected, but had SD card in it, which I could access from my PC. The phone apparently belonged to a teenage girl and SD card was full of her pictures and her friends and her dog. Then I hit the gold – there was a birthday party group photo, where she was smiling and hugging her parents. And I knew the father – we worked together a few years ago.

    I called around, found out where he worked now, called the company and a receptionist connected me. Got his home address, knocked on the door and gave the phone to the girl when she opened.

    Happy ending.

  16. John Cowan says:

    I returned a wallet and have had one returned to me. I also left my backpack on the bus once and was able to fetch it from the bus lost & found: they went through the papers, found my name and address, and gave me a call.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Is there anywhere apart from Japan where that story would have had a happy ending?

    I’ve been told by friends in a position to know that this was true of Syria in the days before everything there went to hell.

  18. If my second-hand knowledge is any good, “Indian removal” was already ongoing at the grassroots, just by killings instead of relocation. So in principle there’s no “early rather than late”: relocation is not a priori an atrocity, especially if compared with (even slow-motion) genocide as option B. Today in hindsight a solution along the lines of the natives being turned into regular taxpaying citizens seems preferrable yet, but that appears to have been off everyone’s tables at the time. (I’ve never heard of anything of the sort at least, maybe one of the many people present with more than passing knowledge of American history will know.)

    The relocation process as it actually went down on the other hand sounds the most gratuitously cruel about any of this… if we want to stick to the wallet analogy, maybe compareable to “sure I’ll take the wallet to Lost & Found, but I shall also deduct $1 in compensation for every step I have to take along the way.”

    On the more mundane branch of the discussion, functional return of lost items is found in quite a few high-trust societies and always find it rather sad when people like Athel end up thinking this is some sort of a blue-moon utopia.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    I used to leave my baggage in the train station or at a random streetcorner until it suited me to pick it up. Never any problem. I stopped because my wife is less high-trust than me, and because post-2001 authorities are even less high-trust.

    We would, however, often leave the stroller with a sleeping baby in it outside shops and cafes. Make of that what you want.

  20. Mother’s leaving sleeping babies in their strollers outside the A&P Supermarket features briefly in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The book was published in 1971, but this is one of many things that suggests it takes place significantly earlier.

  21. John Cowan says:

    My parents were forbidden to take me and my stroller (I’m not sure which of us was the issue) into one of the museums in the Kremlin back in 1960, so I can say that for about two hours I was under observation by the KGB. (For reference, Donald Trump didn’t come to their notice until 1986.)

    Today in hindsight a solution along the lines of the natives being turned into regular taxpaying citizens seems preferrable yet, but that appears to have been off everyone’s tables at the time.

    For two reasons: the State of Georgia had just surrendered its western claims to the federal government, as all the first 13 states did, and wanted sole control of its remaining territory; and the Cherokee land was immensely valuable, both for the gold under it and for its strategic location as a future land transportation corridor. Atlanta (formerly known as Terminus) owes its wealth and power to railroads running through former Cherokee land.

    However, a number of Cherokee groups, later known as the Old Settlers, did cross the Missisippi voluntarily to settle in a federal reservation in Arkansas Territory in the late 1810s; in Flint’s fictions, they all did. A few Cherokee, now known as the Eastern Band, remained in hiding in North Carolina; Flint hasn’t yet gotten to the point where we’d know about those. When discovered, they were required to become U.S. citizens, which in those days meant giving up tribal status: after 1924 when all tribe members became citizens, the Eastern Band was able to reorganize, and is one of the three recognized Cherokee nations in the U.S. today: the Cherokee Nation mostly descends from Trail of Tears survivors, and the Keetoowah Band mostly from the Old Settlers.

  22. Praying Indians of New England, I think, were exactly that – regular taxpaying citizens and Puritans, to boot. They eventually lost their languages and became completely assimilated.

    Or so it was thought, because in late 20th century their descendants went on to declare their Indianness, establish tribes, elect chiefs and run casinos.

    Cherokees and other “Civilized Tribes” were already pretty far advanced along this route and would have done it, if only the Georgians were a little, tiny bit less racist.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    rather sad when people like Athel end up thinking this is some sort of a blue-moon utopia.

    I find it rather sad when people make such a mountain out a molehill. You seem to have ignored my last few words, “I don’t think there are many places where one could be confident”. Of course found objects, no matter how valuable, are often handed in to the proper people. I’ve often done it myself, indeed I did so this week, when I found a telephone that someone had left lying around. The point of my story was that my Japanese-speaking colleague was confident that I would get everything back.

  24. I find it rather sad when people make such a mountain out a molehill (…)

    Sorry, seems like I have misinterpreted what distinction you were aiming at.

    Still not quite an “of course” manner though: there are alas also many areas of the world where one may have good confidence in not having lost valuables returned to them. (But perhaps they’re also areas unlikely to have an appreciable LH commenter density.)

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