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)
24 February 2022
The Advent of a Newspaper
This is the first of a series of blogs looking at Cherokee language printing.
Whilst exploring the British Library’s North American Indigenous language materials as part of my PhD research, I came across Frank Brannon's Cherokee Phoenix, Advent of a Newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834 (Fig 1, below). The book tells the fascinating story of the first newspaper printed in an Indigenous language at the Cherokee Nation's capital of New Echota (near what is now Calhoun, Georgia). As a papermaker, printer and book artist from Knoxville in East Tennessee, Frank grew up not far from both the birthplace of Sequoyah (the Cherokee inventor of the syllabary that enabled printing in the Cherokee language) and the papermill that supplied the paper for the first edition of the Cherokee Phoenix.
In 1809 Cherokee speaker Sequoyah embarked on committing the Cherokee language to paper. He was fascinated by books (or 'talking leaves') and the power of the written word, but not all shared in this fascination. On the 18th of August 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix reported that Sequoyah had been 'strenuously opposed by all his friends and neighbours' in his task. In response, 'he would listen to the expostulations of his friends and then deliberately light his pipe, pull his spectacles over his eyes, and sit down to his work, without attempting to vindicate his conduct', an account that wonderfully evokes the famous image of him (Fig 2, below).
Sequoyah initially created a character for every word in Cherokee. He may have been influenced by other alphabets and reportedly had an English spelling book in his possession. Finding that this yielded too many characters, he separated the words into parts and assigned a character to each component: hence, a syllabary (Fig 3, below).
Sequoyah listened, remembered and added, and in 1821 he completed his 86-character invention. It took some effort to convince Cherokee speakers to use it, but learning was quick once persuaded. This was because it was made by and for native speakers (unlike the Roman orthographies imposed by missionaries at the time), and once a speaker learnt 'the alphabet', they could read. Within seven years, Cherokee literacy had accelerated, and a national press had been established. Even before the characters appeared in print, they became a tangible part of life and the landscape. An observer in a later newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate, wrote that when travelling through the Cherokee Nation in 1828 'I frequently saw as I rode from place to place, Cherokee letters painted or cut on the trees by the roadside, on fences, houses and often on pieces of bark or board, lying about the houses.' Whilst Sequoyah was not directly involved with the Cherokee Phoenix, he would regularly travel to the Dwight Mission in Oklahoma to collect the latest issue sent to him from Georgia.
In Frank’s book, we follow printers John Foster Wheeler and Isaac Harris as they journeyed together in 1827 from Jasper, Tennessee to the printing office made of 'hewed logs' in New Echota. There, they met editor and Cherokee Elias Boudinot and missionary Samuel Worcester. The materials - the paper, typecast and press - arrived from Boston in early 1828 and the first edition appeared on 21st February 1828. A fifth of the four-page newspaper was printed in Cherokee, reflecting the difficulties of translating and printing between English and Cherokee.
The potential input of US type casters and Worcester in designing the typecast alters how the characters appear in print. Worcester also re-arranged Sequoyah’s characters to reflect the sounds expressed through Roman letters (Fig 4, see below). Despite this, the syllabary was a Cherokee initiative in its creation and use.
Frank writes that "the complexities in the purpose of the newspaper should connotate the difficulties of the era: a true crucible where no one purpose may be clearly stated". This captures the turbulent history the newspaper shared in, seen through its engagement with debates on forced removal and Cherokee sovereignty, and in the newspapers eventual demise. Frank’s quote also captures the complex context of print as a technology tied to the ‘civilising’ mantra of colonialism. Through the story of the Phoenix however, we can understand how print also existed (and exists) as a tool of Indigenous agency, used and expanded to meet Indigenous motives and intellectual traditions.
The last edition of the Phoenix appeared on the 31st of May 1834. In the following year the printers moved westward, the State of Georgia, at the behest of the US Federal Government, seized the printing press and the editor of the newspaper, Elias Boudinot, signed the controversial 1835 Treaty of New Echota - the precursor to the mass forced removal of Cherokees in the 1838 Trail of Tears.
In 1954, the typecast was excavated from a well nearby to the original printing office. Frank’s work includes reproductions of hand impressions of this type which he uses to make conclusions on printing activities at New Echota in the early nineteenth century (Fig 5, see below).
Frank’s book brings together the history of the materials and people joined in the creation of the Cherokee Phoenix and uses those historic materials within its own creation. Through it, we encounter a handmade letterpress book that both emulates and extends the story of the historical materials used to print the Cherokee Phoenix. It is form and content connecting and reaching back through time, speaking to the afterlives of those materials and extending the story of Cherokee language printing.
- Rebecca Slatcher, Collaborative Doctoral Student (British Library & The University of Hull)
14 September 2020
Māori Language Week 2020
September 14th 2020 marks the start of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week): the annual celebration of a pivotal moment in the revitalisation of the language in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In this post, we look at the journey of te reo Māori (the Māori language) following the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, and hear from Scott Ratima Nolan, a member of staff here at the British Library, about his own relationship with te reo (the language).
Te reo Māori in Aotearoa
The history of te reo, considered so sacred in Māori culture that it now has protection under the Treaty of Waitangi, is a tale of highs and lows. Before the 19th century, te reo Māori was predominately a spoken language, with meaning and information also communicated through symbols and patterns embedded in crafts such as weaving and carvings. Te reo (the language) developed as a written form in the beginning of the 19th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries, and dominated the early years of publishing in Aotearoa. The first books printed in the country were written in te reo: extracts from the Bible printed on the missionary press in the 1830s at Paihia in the country’s North Island. Early Māori language newspapers, such as the government-owned Ko te Karere o Nui Tireni (shelfmark LOU.CMISC67), began publication in the following decade.
Te reo remained the most widely spoken language of Aotearoa during the first half of the 19th century, with Europeans learning the language in order to communicate, trade and convert the Māori population. However, this changed with the increase of settlers arriving in the country, and Europeans emerged as the majority population by the second half of the 19th century. The English language now dominated, forcing assimilation among Māori through suppression of the use of te reo in schools and discouraging its use in public life. Confined to use in the home, te reo Māori became at risk of extinction by the mid-20th century. The Māori language, culture and identity are intricately entwined, with te reo considered taonga (treasure) in Māori culture. Taonga require protection and this prompted a revitalisation of the language in the 1970s. On September 14th 1972, Parliament was called upon to allow te reo to be taught in schools: a place where its use had previously been actively discouraged, and often forbidden. Language recovery programmes began in earnest and te reo Māori became increasingly heard on radio and television, and read in Māori newspapers, magazines and books. Te reo education systems were established including Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa which immersed students in Māori language and culture. Following a successful language claim under the Treaty of Waitangi which argued that, as a taonga, the language deserved protection, te reo Māori was made an official language of Aotearoa/New Zealand through the Māori Language Act in 1987. The Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori), was set up in the same year to promote the language, and published guides such as Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008) and Te Matatiki contemporary Māori words (shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438) to promote use of te reo in daily life.
The Commission also exists to expand the language, and they have recently developed Māori terminology for a very serious 21st century situation: COVID-19. New terms to enter the Māori language this year to support the fight against COVID-19 include:
- Mate Korona = Corona Virus
- Patuero ā-ringa = Hand Sanitiser
- Tū Tīrara = Social Distancing
- Rere ā-Hapori = Community Transmission
Maori Language Commission, 2020
The aim is for Aotearoa to eventually become a bi-lingual country, and while Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) celebrates that crucial moment in the trajectory of te reo in 1972, it also acts a source of inspiration and encouragement for all New Zealanders to connect or re-connect with te reo Māori. In doing so, they help safeguard a language deeply woven into their country’s history and identity. Te reo Māori is also safeguarded outside Aotearoa through diaspora communities, including here in the UK. The Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club keep the Māori culture and language strong and proud in New Zealanders living in London and the rest of the UK. Ngāti Rānana also meet to learn, practise and share knowledge of kapa haka: traditional performing arts. Anyone with an interest in Māori culture is welcome at their regular gatherings at the New Zealand High Commission in London (moved online during COVID-19).
A personal connection with te reo Māori
Although the British Library is the national library of the UK, our staff are international and have personal connections to countries, languages and cultures all over the world. In the story below, Conservation Support Assistant, Scott Ratima Nolan, explains his own relationship with te reo Māori.
It hasn’t been easy to write about being tangata whenua: being Māori here in the UK. When I think about Aotearoa, the land I call home, it is a strong wrench. The ties of a thousand flaxen cords are interwoven with both Pasifika and Pākehā (White NZ) threads, bound with the hands of ancestors known, and (to my shame) unknown. Ever does it pull; He taura here whenua. Such are the ties that bind.
Growing up in South Auckland, that North Island city of effervescent Polynesian culture, I was wrapped in the warmth of my whānau and a proud people. My father, a man as gifted as Herodotus in blending truth and fiction, maintained my first language was te reo Māori. While this is debatable, I certainly was strong in my tikanga (custom or practice); the first flag I ever knew was the United Tribes of New Zealand. I remember my visit to the Auckland War Museum as a child, where I was moved to tears in seeing the taonga, the treasures of my people, on display. It resolved me, even then, to become a Kaitiaki: a custodian. And, emblematic of my own shared bloodlines, caring for the heritage and the taonga of not just my own, but many cultures.
Now, as any reproachful teenager would tell you, growing up is hard. And in moving to the South Island of New Zealand, I was confronted by another culture: that of the South Island Pākehā. My school had no legitimate te reo course. Culture was limited to theatre and musicals. Speaking te reo out loud was looked down on. In history, we spent an entire term on the Irish Civil War, but knew next to nothing on the New Zealand Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori land confiscation. Frustratingly, both teachers and my fellow students were aghast at my claims to be ‘native’. I looked like them; why would I want to be any different? In a grand spectacle of Pākehā dominance, in front of what seemed to be the entire school, my Principal forced me to remove my Pounamu, a sacred greenstone (which my father had forbidden me to remove), from around my neck. The trenches and palisades of my cultural pride and resistance were assaulted and hewn down into the cold embrace of southern conformity. And, while I rebuilt my confidence somewhat over my university years, I had lost a lot of my pride, and my language. There were scars across my heart, and it was with some relief that I left Aotearoa to come to the UK. I hoped I could reconnect with my culture by becoming a Kaitiaki, working with heritage collections.
However, attempting to build a career in heritage institutions here can be a real struggle for BAME and Indigenous peoples. To work in this sector, I found I had to suppress my culture: a necessity for those doors to open. I did this not out of shame over being Māori, but rather the sadness of not being accepted and welcomed here (especially in this sector) as such. And for years since, I railed against those ties that bound me until they diminished. And I stopped my ears to the whispers of my tīpuna (ancestors) who know me as Māori until they quietened. I even stopped using what te reo I knew, because I had grown up understanding that my language was sacred, and I felt I profaned it by using it when I did not honour my people. And thus, I lived, but I lived with a hole in my heart.
But the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement was a real catalyst for me. That hole in my heart cast a long shadow across my soul, and a real despondency overtook me. This despondency rose not just from those events, but also the slow dawning realisation of how much I had given up just to be here to work in a field I had, in ruthless irony, chosen as a place where I could honour my people by being a Kaitiaki, a custodian, to the treasures we hold here.
A taniwha, a guardian spirit that had long lain dormant inside me, had awoken, and it was hungry for change. And somehow, I gained the strength to put aside fear of exclusion, embarrassment or castigation, to speak up and identify myself as Māori. And I found a workplace that is incredibly supportive and responsive to the BLM movement, and is taking steps to become more inclusive: to accept me as I am. In a matter of weeks, I was working alongside others on the Front Hall busts reinterpretation, which, in redressing some of our collection legacies, has restored Mana to both my people and the British Library.
So, in this year’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, I’m celebrating my rebirth. I’m Māori, and I’m proud. I take courage from the very language itself, which at one point faced extinction and has come back so strong. Te reo Māori is an essential part of my culture, and I’ve made it my resolution to relearn it. I’m starting now, haltingly, to use the words of my people in every day speech and in email, to celebrate and share my culture, and to reach out to my friends back home in Aotearoa: to not only kōrero (talk), but also to whakarongo, (listen).
And every word I speak tears down another brick in the walls I have built up, filling the hole in my heart. And at long last I can hear my ancestors again.
Tihei Mauri ora! Behold the breath of life!
Scott Ratima Nolan
Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa
Aotearoa: ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ the Māori name for New Zealand
Kaitiaki: Guardian or a custodian, someone who works to protect and safeguard
Pākehā: White New Zealanders of (usually) European descent
Pasifika: Peoples of the Pacific or of Pacific Island descent, who call Aotearoa home
Pounamu: NZ nephrite jade, or Greenstone. A sacred stone considered taonga, or treasured. Often used in jewellery or weapons with a deep spiritual connection
Tangata whenua: ‘The People of the Land’ how we as Māori often refer to ourselves; the indigenous inhabitants of this land
Taniwha: a Mythological being, often found in water. They can be Kaitiaki (guardians) or monsters punishing those that breached tikanga (custom)
Taonga: the treasures, artefacts or resources that are considered of great value, including our language
Tikanga: the customs, culture, etiquette and practices of being Māori
Tīpuna: alternatively spelled as tupuna, this refers to Ancestors and grandparents
Whānau: Family and extended family
Belich, J. (2015). The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322292
Cooper, G. (2004). Te rerenga ā te pīrere : a longitudinal study of Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori students. Pūrongo tuatahi = Phase 1 report. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). BL shelfmark YD.2010.b.826
Curnow, J., Hopa, N.K. and McRae, J. (2013). He pitopito kōrero nō te perehi Māori = Readings from the Māori-language press. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322290
Higgin, R. Rewi, P. and Olsen-Reeder, P. (2014). The value of the Māori language = Te hua o te reo Māori. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia Publishers. BL shelfmark YP.2014.a.6419
Karetu, T. and Milroy, W. (2019). He kupu tuku iho : ko te reo Māori te tatau ki te ao. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.306747
Moon, P. (2016). Ka ngaro te reo: Māori language under siege in the nineteenth century. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press. BL shelfmark YC.2020.a.2630
Moon, P. (2018). Killing te reo Māori. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Campus Press. BL Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3686
Williams, H.W. (1924). A Bibliography of Printed Maori to 1900. Dominion Museum Monograph. no. 7. Wellington, New Zealand. BL shelfmark Ac.1990.ca.
Williams, W. (trans). (1835) Ko nga pukapuka o Paora te Apotoro ki te hunga o Epeha, o Piripai /Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. Paihia, New Zealand: Pahia Missionary Press. BL shelfmark C.23.a.15.(2.)
Ko te karere o nui tireni. (1842). Auckland; New Zealand. BL shelfmark LOU.CMISC67
Māori Language Commission. (1997) Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (2nd ed). Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008
Māori Language Commission. (1996). Te Matatiki : contemporary Māori words. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438
Māori Language Commission. (2020). Māori terminology for Covid-19 [online]. Available at: https://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori/press-releases/maori-terminology-for-covid-19/
Lucy Rowland, Curator Oceania Published Collections (post-1850)
24 April 2020
Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)
Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues. In part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!
Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley
Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!
Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!
Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets. She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”. The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.
Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)
Yolngu Matha (Australia)
*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*
When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First Peoples of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First Peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.
One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous languages of Australia), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.
When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language.
A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in First Peoples' culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.
Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa...
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu.
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy.
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru;
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru;
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru.
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water.
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu.
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea.
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing,
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming;
A gathering of many people;
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales
I sing for those people, the ones far away.
In First Peoples' culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language.
To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850
Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137]
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project
Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466
Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825
Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332
Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896
Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930
23 April 2020
Poems from the edge of extinction (part 1)
For this blog, and in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published in 2019 (also the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in the Americas and Oceania collections. In part 1 of this blog, we consider examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, while part 2 (to follow) will look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!
Tongan (Lea Faka-Tonga) is the national language of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian nation of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the only monarchy in the Pacific. Tongan is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian family and is most closely related to the Samoan language of the same family. There are around 190,000 Tongan speakers with nearly half of these living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia or the United States. Though not on the endangered language list, Tongan, like many Pacific languages, is in danger of an eventual language shift to English. As outlined above, the migration of many native Tongan speakers is a predictor for this, as well as the predominance of English in online environments, and with English being increasingly associated with greater educational and employment opportunities. In an effort to counter this and preserve Tongan as the native language among young people in the country, the Minister of Education introduced a new language policy in 2012. Children are now taught solely in Tongan upon starting school, with English only gradually introduced at later stages. The policy aims for students to be fluent in both languages by completion of their education. Other efforts to preserve the language and culture among Tongans, includes the annual Tongan Language Week for Tongans living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Traditionally a spoken language, the first written examples of Tongan were made by missionaries using the Latin script in the 19th century, with the current spellings decided by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943. The Tongan script uses three different diacritic marks to guide pronunciation and meaning: the glottal stop, the macron, and the stress mark, which often requires careful proofreading in text. The language is notable for having multiple speech registers based on status and formality, including one specifically for use when speaking to or about the reigning monarch or deities. With its strong oral over written tradition, Tongan language poetry is not abundant in our print collections. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a translated collection of the poetry of Tonga’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Sālote Tupou III, Tonga's poet on the throne from 1918 to her death in 1965. Songs & poems of Queen Sālote (2004) features 114 works by the monarch in Tongan with translations into English by the Pacific languages academic, Dr. Melenaite Taumoefolau.
Some of you may already be familiar with Queen Sālote as the head of state who received uproarious applause on Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day in 1953, when she refused to lower the hood of her carriage in the driving rain, and instead laughed and waved joyfully at the crowds lining the procession route. Her spirit and warmth on the day prompted newspaper editor, Jack Fishman, to write a song aptly titled The Queen of Tonga (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN) which was then made popular by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra (Sound Collections 1CD0189529).
However, you may not know that she is also celebrated as poet and song writer whose work, comprising of over 100 compositions, has played a major role in the preservation of the Tongan language and Tonga’s rich cultural heritage. Historian and biographer of Queen Sālote, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, wrote in Songs & poems of Queen Sālote that:
The Queen was… acclaimed as an extremely gifted poet. Queen Sālote spent many hours perfecting the words of her poems, and she invited groups of musicians to come to the Palace in the evenings to work with her. They often stayed until the early hours of the morning. Poetry that was set to music consisted of love songs (both happy and sad), laments for deaths of chiefs and those close to her, lullabies for her grandchildren, and songs written especially for the accompaniment of dance, such as lakalaka and mā‘ulu‘ulu. Love songs (hiva kakala) were often used as accompaniment to the solo dance for a woman, the tau‘olunga. (pp.279-281)
Tongan language poetry makes great use of heliaki (metaphoric language) to make culture specific references to the knowledge shared by Tongan speakers. This can make literal translations difficult without using annotations, as the meanings and connotations of kinship connections in the heliaki often require explanation to non-Tongan speakers. We can see an example of this in Queen Sālote’s poem, The Queen’s Tears at the Passing of Tangata o’ Ha’amea, which employs the technique to bemoan that Ha’amea (a prominent Tongan chief) left no heir:
Dear home of Niukasa
Standing at the base of Sia
With the stream called Fotu ‘afinema
Once trickling but now empty
Not a drop is left
Diplomatic use of heliaki can be seen in her poem, ‘Uno 'o Sangone. Composed during World War 2, the poem is ostensibly about the Polynesian myth of the turtle Sangone, but draws heavily on the shared knowledge of the long history and connections between Tonga and its neighbour, Samoa. Through this use of heliaki, the Queen aimed to reassure Tongans and remind them of the importance of allies and unity during wartime:
Ne‘ine‘i hako mei he tonga
Tapa ē‘uhila mei lulunga
He na‘e mana ē Feingakotone
Fakahake ē‘uno ‘o Sangone.
No wonder the gales blew from the south
Lightening flashed from the west.
The Feingakotone* thundered
For Sangone’s shell was brought forth.
However, to really appreciate the Tongan language and Queen Sālote’s work, you should enjoy it in the manner through which it was intended, such as this contemporary performance of Loka Siliva (Silver Lock or Locket), a love song (hiva kakala) she wrote for her husband, sung by the Tonga Creative Collective, and with translations from Tongan to English.
For examples of more recent poetry from the Kingdom of Tonga in the British Library collections, see also Hingano : selected poems, 1966-1986 / by Konai Helu Thaman (BL shelfmark YA.1996.a.3558), and Mauri ola : contemporary Polynesian poems in English / edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan (BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.322430).
*Feingakotone is a place in the Kingdom of Tonga
Lucy Rowland (Curator, Oceania Published Collections post-1850)
Yucatec Maya (Mexico)
Briceida Cuevas Cob is a well-published poet and cultural promoter in her native Yucatan, South-Mexico. The poem below is from the verse collection U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ / El quejido del perro en su existencia [The growl of the dog in its existence]. In her collection, she captures the violence and harshness of Mayan existence through the violence suffered by these abandoned stray dogs.
Four poems from this collection were published in Latin American Literature Today, May 2018: Translated by Arthur Dixon. Here is one of them:
¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab,
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz?
Pek’ má ta p’atik a yúmil,
Pek’ má ta chíik a yúmil,
Pek’ a yama a yúmil:
majant a uak’ti uínik,
tiólal u choj xan u k’a u chí,
ka u ch’ul luum,
ka u pak’, je bix teché, u náatil kuxtal.
Majant a uich ti uínik,
tiólal u pákat yétel a k’om ólal.
Majant a nej ti uínik
tiólal u bik’ibik’tik, yétel a kímak ólal.
kun alak ti: KS, KS, KS;
tiólal u tákik ichil u yok yétel a sútal,
kun alak ti: B’J, B’J, B’J.
Majant a ní ti uínik,
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal.
majant a dzaay tí uínik,
tiólal u chíik u túkul.
Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand
raises his right hand to strike?
Dog, don’t you abandon your owner,
dog, don’t you bite your lord,
dog, you love your master:
lend your tongue to the man,
so the drool drips down him too,
so it wets the earth,
and sows, like you, the understanding of existence.
Lend your eyes to the man,
so he sees with your sadness.
Lend your tail to the man,
so he wags it with joy
when they call him: KS, KS, KS;
so he tucks it between his legs with your shame
when they tell him: B’J, B’J, B’J;
lend him your nose
so he sniffs the goodness that only exists in the hands of a child.
lend him your teeth
so he bites his own conscience.
I have chosen this poem, because I remember stray dogs as a striking feature during my first visit to Mexico as an intern at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) after finishing my MA. An older Austrian colleague with a proper job adopted a stray dog, when a group of us came home from a weekend trip. Looking back, this must have seemed a foolish act to many local people. Yet, we were a group of young and idealistic Mexicans and foreigners and this act of kindness towards the stray dog is stuck in my mind.
When I read Briceida Cuevas Cob’s dog poems, I think back to the many mangy dogs on dusty roads I saw in Mexico and our friend’s little act of defiance in taking one of them in. I like how Cueva Cob in her poem binds together mundane experiences of ubiquitous violence with deep philosophical questions about life. And I like the rhythm of the poem in the English translation by Arthur Dixon. In the Maya original, which I cannot read, I enjoy looking at the distribution of letters on the page, strange and beautiful to me, unlike the spelling of any other language I can read. There are so many ‘k’ and ‘u’. It looks mysterious to me and makes me want to hear the poem recited in Yucatec Maya.
If you feel the same, you can hear another poem by Cuevas Cob set to music by contemporary Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, who lives in London. Our library has the music score of two pieces composed to Cuevas Cob’s work. One is called Codex of Enigmas/ Códice de Adivinancas [Scores at BL Music Collections g.1465.v.(2.)] and is a piece for solo viola and a speaker reciting the poem written in Maya language . You can find a video of a performance in France on the composer’s webpage.
Or if you prefer a different tune, check out the video from Tihorappers Crew, from Tihosuco, Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatec peninsula). It starts in Maya language and then switches between Spanish and Maya. Even if you don’t know Spanish or Maya, I think you’ll be able to hear the difference between the two languages and can enjoy the beat.
Iris Bachmann, Curator of Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)
Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137]
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here
Helu, 'I. F. (2006). Ko e heilala tangitangi ʿo Sālote Pilolevu : Ko e tohi vete ʿo e fatu ʿa e kau Punake Tonga ʿo tuku he tumuʿakiʹ ʿe he ngaahi maaʿimoa ʿa e Taʿahine Kuini Sālote Tupou III : ʿoku fokotuʿu mo fakatoputapuʿi atu ʿa e kiʿi tohi ni (dedicate) kia Pilinisesi Sālote. Nukualofa, Tonga: ʿAtenisi Press. Shelfmark YF.2010.a.28034
Helu, 'I. F., P., & Janman, P. (2012). On Tongan poetry. Warkworth, Auckland, N.Z.: Atuanui Press. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4936
Otsuka, Y. (2007). Making a Case for Tongan as an Endangered Language. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 446–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23724904.
Smith, K. and 'Otunuku, M. (2015). Heliaki: transforming literacy in Tonga through metaphor. The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations and Social Justice Education 1 (1), pp. 99-112.Cardiff University, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/86002
Wood-Ellem, E. (2004). Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem ; with essays by HRH Princess Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho ... [et al.]. Nukuʻalofa: Vavaʻu Press. Shelfmark YD.2009.b.1963
Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry without Borders, 2005, Nov issue, Accessed 22 April 2020:
Briceida Cuevas Cob, ‘Two poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob’, World Literature Today., 2010, 84(1), 16-17. [BL shelfmark: 9356.558600]
Paul Worley, ‘On translating indigenous languages’, Asymptote, June 7, 2018. Accessed on 22 April 2020:
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