At its genesis, print culture in Colonial North America was an Indigenous enterprise. From the first printed Bible (a 1661-1663 Wôpanââk translation made with the support of multiple Indigenous interpreters and printers), to the missionary presses that spread across the frontier in the nineteenth century, the emergence and spread of print was heavily intertwined with the complex relationships between Euro-American settlers and Indigenous peoples of North America. Sadly, the missionary endeavors that brought alphabetic literacy and print culture to Indigenous communities also contributed to the destruction of a people’s history and culture, including the devastating loss of multiple spoken languages. In 1996, Ives Goddard summarized the dire situation in volume 17 of the Handbook of North American Indians:

In 1995 there were approximately 209 Native North American languages still spoken, perhaps roughly half the number that existed 500 years earlier. This number is misleading, though, because many of these were spoken by only a handful of elderly speakers, and only 46 were spoken by children. In other words, nearly 80% of the extant native languages of North America were no longer spoken by children and were facing effective extinction within a single lifetime or, in most cases, much sooner.

Print Culture in Indigenous North America gathers Special Collections holdings of pre-twentieth-century Indigenous print material as it seeks, in the words of Philip Round, “to tease out the complex interactions between alphabetic literacy, Native graphic sign systems, and the ideology of the book.” The project covers key moments in the development of Indigenous print culture—seventeenth-century Puritan approaches to Christian missionary work in Indigenous languages; late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century emergence of Native American authors (publishing primarily in English); and the spread of printing into “Indian Country” and a subsequent reemergence of printed Indigenous language texts throughout the nineteenth-century. These periods capture the development of alphabetic literacy (such as the Cherokee syllabary devised by Sequoyah in 1819-20) as well as provide a vital historical record of Indigenous languages in support of language revitalization projects.

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