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Sequoyah National Research Centers Helps Celebrate History of Cherokee Journalism

Erin Fehr
Erin Fehr

UA Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center helped commemorate the history of journalism in the Cherokee Nation by joining the “Cherokee Journalism and Printing” event celebrating the 196th anniversary of the first edition of the Cherokee Phoenix.

The Cherokee Phoenix is the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the U.S. as well as the first newspaper published in a Native American language.

Erin Fehr, assistant director of Sequoyah, attended the event held Feb. 21 at the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum and the Cherokee Arts Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Visitors had the opportunity to view materials printed in the Cherokee syllabary from the collections of the Sequoyah National Research Center along with the Cherokee National Research Center.

“The Sequoyah National Research Center is the world’s largest collection of Native American periodicals, and the Cherokee Phoenix is one of the many newspapers we have in our collection,” Fehr said. “Dr. Daniel Littlefield and Dr. James Parins (Sequoyah founders) wrote a three-volume set back in the 1980s highlighting the history of Native publishing, and the Cherokee Phoenix was one of those highlighted as it was the very first tribal newspaper to be published in the country.”

The Sequoyah materials on display at the event included a 1910 edition of the Indian Home and Farm newspaper that was published in four languages and is the only known copy to exist. Fehr also displayed a set of four comics published in English and Cherokee in 1975 in collaboration with the Cherokee Bilingual Education Program.

“The set of comics were definitely highlights,” Fehr said. “The comics included ‘Popeye,’ Beetle Bailey,’ and ‘Blondie.’ Visitors asked a lot of questions about the comics.”

Visitors also listened to panels of Cherokee journalists and artists who discussed the work of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper and the efforts to preserve the written Cherokee language. Fehr moderated a panel celebrating the past, present, and future of Cherokee journalism featuring Tyler Thomas, executive editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, and Roy Boney Jr., a UA Little Rock alumnus who was manager of the Cherokee Language Technology Program at the time but now works for the Cherokee Film Commission.

The Cherokee Phoenix also holds a unique place in Native freedom of the press history, according to Fehr.

“There are only five tribal newspapers in the country that have free press provisions, meaning they can print whatever they want without fear of retaliation,” Fehr said. “Not many people realize that freedom of the press isn’t a given for a tribal newspaper. The Cherokee Nation was the first to add a free press provision to its constitution in 2000. It’s easy to say that the Cherokee Phoenix has been a forerunner in many areas as far as Native journalism is concerned.”

The Sequoyah National Research Center contains early editions of the Cherokee Phoenix from the 1800s on microfilm as well as print copies from when the newspaper began reprinting again in the 1970s.

“We have over 100 years of Cherokee newspapers represented in our archives,” Fehr said. “We really enjoyed collaborating with the Cherokee Nation on this project, and we think it is the first of many collaborations to come. We hope to do this next year to celebrate the 197th anniversary of the Cherokee Phoenix.”