02 March 2022
In conversation with Frank Brannon
This is the second blog looking at Cherokee language printing through the work of book artist and papermaker Frank Brannon. A previous post introduced Frank’s work, Cherokee Phoenix, advent of a newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834: a handmade letterpress book that tells the history of the first newspaper printed in an Indigenous language. After becoming interested in the materiality and creation of Frank’s book, he kindly spoke to me about his experience of printing in Cherokee as well as complex questions about what it means to have Indigenous language materials at the British Library.
Initially, Frank explained to me some of the technical difficulties of printing in Cherokee, such as ensuring the right spacing is on the type and watching for typos. We also spoke about the differences between Sequoyah’s syllabary, and the type-cast-
“To other eyes through time, just as you and I will see Roman letters, others will see Cyrillic if they have that background, or they might see Greek. They tend to look like other things. But Sequoyah’s original letters look nothing like the type-cast."
In creating the book, Frank also described how he visited the University of Alabama special collections library to model the book on those of the 1820s:
"I wanted to put the person in the time. The 1820’s is a time of transition from handmade to machine-made books. Books would be encased in a cheap cover, and they weren't really meant to last long in the publisher’s binding before they became something else. At the special collection's library, you would open the books and the backs would be breaking. So, The Cherokee Phoenix book really wants to fall apart- it was made for a better binding" (Fig. 1 above)
In speaking to Frank, what is notable is the book’s grounding in materials and place. On asking him what drew him to the topic, he replied that “it was the papermill and it was Sequoyah”. The historic materials used to print the Cherokee Phoenix were excavated from the site of the original printing office in New Echota (now Calhoun, Georgia) and those materials extend into the narrative and creation of Frank’s book. Given the (sometimes) difficult history of printing in Cherokee and the current endangerment of the language, I asked Frank if he felt a sense of responsibility in the work today. In his response he recalls returning to New Echota-
"I felt early that we had a responsibility to get it right, and I still feel that responsibility today. I was able to take some of the printing type and print at the historic site of New Echota in what is now North Georgia, and I actually taught a class in the reconstructed print shop there. When my friend- who was a member of the tribe- and I, would go and print in New Echota you could just kind of feel the weight of that event. It was almost like a dream. It's prescient, it's superseding your regular day, and I would have to admit there are not that many times in life it happens. It was the reality and the depth of that experience. The manager of what is now a Georgia state historic site understood the importance of us coming there and doing that work, also. And as a white person trying to support the revitalization the Cherokee language, you have to try a little bit harder."
This reminds us also of the gap between language on the page and language in the world as lived, happenstance and imperfect. Frank retells how when teaching at the Southeastern community college in western North Carolina, he labelled drawers of coloured paper with their Cherokee names. There is a sense of immediacy, in a place where all understand the importance of language revitalization-
“It was immediate for people from that community who did not know the language at the time to start using those words. I never told anyone in the class that I would like for them to use the names, but they did, every time. It’s not like you have to teach them, its osmosis, it’s in them.”
When considering the poignancy of printing in New Echota, we spoke about different sense of place presented by the British Library. What does it mean for Frank’s work and wider Indigenous language materials to be in the British Library? Much of the library’s holdings - and its history as an institution - speak to a North American context whereby Indigenous languages were taken, classified and denied to peoples in service of historic and ongoing settler colonial projects that sought to eradicate languages and cultures. These contexts have legacies in the ways languages are misrepresented and accessed in library systems today -
“The idea that one might need to verify who they are to access the language of their own people, things that they have been denied the ability to speak or say themselves, in a boarding school for example. The indignity of being pressed to follow someone else’s rules, to access their own knowledge”
“It’s hard to think in general about doing a fine letterpress book and having anyone upon it. There are a lot of questions here, and it has to with ownership, and it has to do with possession.”
This brought us to a discussion on the issues with the label of ‘Indigenous languages collection’ and the narratives those collections claim to tell -
“That’s the key - that process of ‘collecting’ them, ‘acquiring’ them. The parallel for me as an artist is that question of - when looking at the larger picture of European history - whose books are in those libraries? It’s mainly male, it’s mainly Anglo. Is that the entire history of the European experience? Well, we know that the answer is no. My artists’ statement says that I wish to tell the story of those that are less told, and to ask: what is the library of 500 years and what will it look like?"
I found the Frank drew between languages and institutional approaches to curating books very insightful in reflecting on some of these questions. In many contexts, Indigenous languages were viewed as ‘exotic’ objects and brought into an institutional setting, to collect and to study or observe. Such a view can persist in the ways people may approach or ask questions about the subject today. As Frank says, ‘it’s just a group of people who have their own language and they would like to use it, it’s as simple as that’. Some of these ideas inform Frank’s work as a book artist-
“For one of the art projects me and my friend Jeff Marley did in Cherokee, I wanted to do an outdoor installation- an exhibition for everything other than people. I did no advertising, and we documented through photography and film. That’s a larger response to the bigger questions you’re asking, because many days I’m not sure if I want to put it in ‘that’ library. A lot of artists books, or book arts, are now shown in a very display like manner. They’re fetish objects and it’s very much ‘over there’. I always struggle when they are behind glass."
By extension, Frank’s artistic process challenges and expands how we interact with books-
“With an artists’ book, you know immediately from the cover that something is different. I would love for the person to recognise that something different is going on long before they even get to the book, and so with the idea of installation or performance artwork to surround the object I am trying to expand the epi-text of the book. All those little things that go with the book, I want them to come out and be alive and blow through the cover. To think of the book as an epi-textual environment that best represents the thoughts and ideas of the individuals or group”
Perhaps in the context of the British Library, this approach can be used to think about how language materials are there, how they have been decontextualised and how Indigenous creators and representation has been written out of the record-
“How you describe books, that is part of that epi-textual environment. The stuff that floats around it, is about it, is of it. And how is that presented.”
As a result of Frank’s work, the printing type is out in the world and the story continues. It’s clear that Frank misses this work, and I am incredibly grateful to him for talking to me. The conversation made me think on the importance of place and ask important questions of collecting practices: what are we trying to preserve, and for who? Above all I love the materiality of the book, and its layers and relationship to the historic materials and contemporary questions. There is something poignant in the 1820’s style book that ‘wants to fall apart’ as the used and accessible artists’ book (as opposed to the displayed and distant artists’ book), and the used, imperfect and grounded use of the Cherokee language (as opposed to the collected and exotic ‘Cherokee language’ materials). Additionally, it begins a very crucial questioning of the difficult ‘epi-text’ of the British Library.
- Rebecca Slatcher, Collaborative Doctoral Student (British Library & The University of Hull)