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The Birth of The Cherokee Phoenix

At the time white settlers arrived in America from Europe, the Cherokee Indians lived in villages spread over large areas of the southeastern United States, on land that later became part of the states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. By the early 1800s, when this story takes place, the Cherokees had banded together to form a centrally governed nation with its own constitution and capital, in New Echota, Georgia. New Echota was an active town with schools, a post office, and businesses.

THE morning sun, rising behind the hills, outlined them in gold. Light slipped through the shutters of Star's room, flashed against the small mirror on her dresser, and lit up the Cherokee alphabet pinned to her bedroom wall. Finally, the rays gilded the tips of the fine fur of the yellow cat that lay on Star's bed.

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Star Messenger, a full-blooded Cherokee whose Indian name - Nak wasi - meant ``star'' or ``meadow lark,'' lived with her parents and baby sister on the outskirts of the Cherokee capital of New Echota. Wrapped in her patchwork quilt, Star heard the squeaky-squawky sound of the bucket being lowered into the well in the garden. She snuggled under the covers for one more minute, then jumped out of bed and hopped on the icy floor to the window.

It was going to be a beautiful day, she decided, looking out at gentle fields silvered with frost. The smell of woodsmoke was piney and fragrant. Today was the big day! The Cherokee Phoenix would be published, and she, Star Messenger, would be at the newspaper office to see the first edition of the first newspaper ever printed in the Cherokee language. She also had a secret reason for wanting to go, but she hadn't told a single person. And she wouldn't until after she'd seen the paper for herself.

She glanced over at the syllabary that was tacked to her wall. Hand-lettered by her father, the 86 odd curving characters were shaped like Greek and English letters. It had been invented by Sequoyah, a mixed-blood Cherokee who had worked on an alphabet for the Cherokee language for years. Seven years earlier, in 1821, he had finished his work.

It was only necessary to learn the characters to be able to read immediately. Cherokees taught Cherokees. They taught one another sitting on the steps of the Council House, at the grist mill while they waited for their corn to be ground, and in the shade of trees where people gathered in afternoons. Strangers, passing one another on the road, shared the news. In the course of a few months, the Cherokee were able to read and write in their own language. Even the Christian missionaries, who had at first been against it, began using the syllabary to teach. Star's father had learned it in days and had been anxious to teach every Cherokee he knew. Even though Star was only 10 years old, she had learned it in less than a month.

It was easy, she thought, looking at the symbols on the chart. This morning, she was going to see Elias Boudinot, the editor of the paper and one of her father's best friends. A few days earlier, Star had watched as the printing press was unloaded from the back of a wagon. Mr. Boudinot, who was called ``the Buck'' by the people, stood next to her. ``I have a secret.'' he said.

``What is it?'' she asked, gazing at the huge printing press.

``There is a voice hidden inside that big black machine,'' said Mr. Boudinot.

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Shivers ran up and down her arms. ``Can I hear it?'' she asked.

``Come down to the paper on Feb. 21,'' he said, ``and you'll hear it.'' * * * *

Star touched the paper of the syllabary lightly. Then her mama called from the kitchen.

``Nak wasi,'' she said, ``Get dressed now. You have to feed the chickens before you go to town.''

Sitting on the side of the bed, Star pulled on her soft buckskin boots and laced them tightly around her ankles. Then, taking down the blue woolen shawl that her mother had woven for her, she wrapped its soft folds around her shoulders and dashed into the front room to the warmth of the brightly burning fire.

After eating breakfast and feeding the chickens, she walked through her mama's garden that in winter was brown and sparse. Only the mounds that held sweet potatoes and some late pumpkins marked the place that most of the year was filled with corn, beans, and squash - the ``three sisters'' that were the mainstay of the Cherokee diet. She heard a noise behind her. Awi, the black lamb, was following her.

``Go back,'' she said. ``You can't come with me this time.'' Awi, whose name meant ``wooly deer,'' was Star's pet. She'd raised him on a bottle when his mama had given birth to twins but would only nurse one of the lambs. As Awi danced back to the cabin, his delicate hooves left tiny prints in the frosty grass. In the apple orchard, the trees were bare against the blue sky. Star's daddy grew apples and peaches and raised fine sheep. From the wool of the sheep, her mama wove shawls and blankets that were so fine that people came from miles away to buy them.

On her way to town, Star passed a row of wooden houses, two stores, and two fine double houses. Mr. Boudinot lived in one, and the Rev. Samuel Worcester, a white man who everyone said was ``the moving force behind the start of the Cherokee Phoenix,'' lived in the other. He was also headmaster of the mission school that Star attended. In the center of town, she walked past the Council House and the courthouse, and there in front of her was the newspaper office. She had butterflies in her stomach. She didn't know why she was so excited, only that she was.

Built of wood, the newspaper office was small, with doors at either end and windows on the sides. A few people were sitting on the steps of the office. Star spoke politely and walked around to the side of the building. Dismayed, she realized that the windows were too high to reach; she couldn't see a thing.

LOOKING around, she saw a wooden box that she dragged over to the window. Standing on it, she tried again to look in, but she was still too short to see anything. Then young John Candy, the printer's apprentice, came out the back door. Seeing her, he laughed and fetched another box. ``Try to stand still,'' he said, ``otherwise, you'll be dropping in for a visit.''

Star peeked into the open window. Mr. Boudinot and Mr. Worcester were sitting at tall wooden desks while the printers worked at the press. It had come by boat all the way from Boston to Augusta, Ga. Then it had come 200 miles in a wagon to New Echota.

By now a crowd had gathered around the office. People stood on the steps and out front, waiting for the first copies to appear. They had already been told that only 500 copies would be printed. Star watched as the printers got ready to set the type by hand, with separate columns of Cherokee and English. Using balls of cotton wrapped in deerskin, the printers began to spread the ink across the page. Mr. Worcester got up and began handing them the type. There were 86 characters in the Cherokee alphabet, but since the characters stood for a whole syllable, it required less space to express a thought in Cherokee than in English.

But something was wrong, Star thought, leaning in to get a better look. Then she realized - the printers, who were white, spoke no Cherokee. They couldn't read the characters of the type! Suddenly she felt the top box begin to shift. Grabbing onto the window ledge, she boosted herself up just as the boxes fell from beneath her feet. Her feet were dangling in midair! John Candy looked up, saw what was happening, and pulled her inside. ``Ah,'' said Mr. Worcester, looking up from the case where he'd been handing type to the printers, ``A falling Star.''

Embarrassed, Star smoothed her skirt and felt her braids to see if they were still neatly tied. Mr. Boudinot looked up from his desk. ``Do you know the syllabary?'' he asked.

Star nodded. ``Then make yourself useful,'' he said. ``I'll call out the line, and you give the type to Mr. Isaacs. Can you do that?''

All that morning, Star moved back and forth across the room, handing type to Isaac Harris. She even learned to recognize a character upside down in the case. At lunch time, baskets of food were sent in along with pots of hot sassafras tea. Finally, Elias Boudinot pulled the first page off the press. Holding it up, he said to Star, ``See, I told you there were voices in the press. That thing of glory has just given voice to the Cherokee people!''

Later she told him her secret. She wanted to write stories for the paper; she wanted to be the first female writer for the first Cherokee newspaper.

``I'll do my best to see that you do,'' said Mr. Boudinot. ``Meanwhile, although you came to us like an angel, you can work as a printer's devil till we get this thing working properly. You go home and ask your mama and daddy if it's all right. If they agree, you come back tomorrow.

``Oh,'' he added, ``and thank you for being a falling Star.''

* * * *

Six years later, the state of Georgia shut down the press and stopped publication of the Cherokee Phoenix. Soldiers raided the newspaper office and threw the precious type down a well. The newspaper was suspended, and the Cherokee people were forced to move from their lands to the West.

Samuel Worcester was arrested in March 1831 by the Georgia authorities for supporting the Indian cause. He was sentenced to hard labor and confined in the state penitentiary until January 1833. His manuscripts for a Cherokee geography, grammar, and dictionary were lost when a steamer went down in the Arkansas River. In 1836, after moving to Indian Territory, Samuel Worcester began the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix at Park Hill, in what is now Oklahoma. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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