Never before has there been a major type event devoted to the past, present and future of the Native North American people. The 2022 installment of the Type Directors Club’s groundbreaking “Type Drives Culture” series, titled Ezhishin, is co-curated by Neebin Southall, Chippewas of Rama First Nation, and Ksenya Samarskaya, managing director of the TDC. This year it will be held virtually from Nov. 11–13, and will feature what promises to be an invaluable range of talks, workshops, speakers and makers (read more and register here).
To whet appetites for this historic and heritage-laden event, Samarskaya arranged for a few of the scheduled participants to take part in an email discussion about the content and context of the planned proceedings. What follows are their responses and examples of some of the work to be shown.
The available literature on Native American typography is minimal, but as a preface to the event I suggest reading the chapter on Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary in Jill Lepore’s A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States. For more information on hundreds of Native American languages, symbols and letters, visit Native Languages of the Americas.
Ezhishin is the first mainstream graphic design conference that I know of on the Native typographic experience. In fact, being in the design world bubble, I hadn’t even considered until now a typo-cultural Native history. How did this unique concept develop and evolve?
Samarskaya: It was all pretty organic and natural. I got the position of being the managing director of the TDC in winter, and part of it is that I had the leeway to drive my own initiatives, or partner with outside organizations. I’d been watching and reading Native Twitter for a long time, and had done two previous interviews, one with Neebinnaukzhik (Neebin) Southall for Typographica, and one with Kathleen Sleboda for Eye on Design. (Huronia was also the first typeface I reviewed for Typographica when I started taking part in their yearly reviews in 2014.) So I guess you can say the evidence was all out there. I knew I couldn’t curate this conference all on my own, and thankfully Neebin (who also runs the Native Graphic Design Project on the side) has been gracious enough to donate a lot of their time, both in helping me line up the right speakers, but also much of the logistics, including collaborating on the design and the messaging. And, of course, I’m grateful to all those that we reached to for their interest and willingness to participate—the roster is truly incredible and it’s their willingness to share their work and perspectives that makes this conference and learning experience what it is.
Southall: When I was being trained as a graphic designer over 10 years ago, I noticed the overarching exclusion of Native creatives within my art and design education. This prompted a number of questions, which formed the basis of my senior project and shaped many professional involvements since. I maintain a growing list of Native graphic designers, write about art and design by Native practitioners, and have collaborated with others to advocate for Native designers and discuss the issues. Ksenya Samarskaya and I first connected when she reached out to interview me for Typographica. When she became the managing director of the Type Directors Club, she asked me to co-curate a conference with her on Native North American typography. The title Ezhishin comes from the Ojibwe language—my tribe’s language—and means “s/he leaves a mark,” a nod to the mark-making of typographers and the legacy we leave as designers. I am well aware of the responsibilities we have as designers—and historians of design.
My priorities in organizing this conference are to leverage the Type Directors Club’s influence to bring more balance to the design sphere, by elevating Native designers; by facilitating a space for Native practitioners to connect with each other, whether working professionals, academics, self-taught designers or design students; and by broadening awareness of resources for the benefit of individuals and our respective tribal communities.
I also want the general public to know that Native designers are out there doing the work, even if their efforts have frequently not been acknowledged or prioritized by the design establishments. There are plenty of interesting developments happening outside of the expected outlets. The more you look and spend time in the community, the more you find. This conference is a way to showcase some of the inspiring work that Native designers are creating, and I look forward to seeing the ideas, connections and collaborations that will come out of this conference.
Roy Boney Jr: Jeff Edwards and I have worked in our own Cherokee design bubble for nearly two decades. We started off creating materials in Cherokee syllabary for our Cherokee language immersion school. At that time, the support of Cherokee syllabary in desktop publishing was negligible at best. A handful of Cherokee fonts had been made but they weren’t cross-platform compatible. That led us to investigate ways Cherokee syllabary in design software could be better compatible for our needs. Knowing Sequoyah developed the syllabary originally in handwritten cursive form, only later to adapt it for the printing press, we realized getting new Cherokee fonts made was just part of the historical continuum of adapting to new technology.
Dr. Jessica Moore Harjo: As a whole, we are just now arriving at the idea of Native American typography being a valid topic of interest/importance as more students and professors and design professionals are exposed to this type of knowledge. For myself, being the first Native American Ph.D. in design (that I know of), I have single-handedly witnessed many gaps in academia, and there is a lot of work to be done to slowly bridge those gaps. I was really excited to see Ezhishin begin and to become a part of this work.
What will be learned from Native written languages that will open the audience to greater knowledge?
Samarskaya: I believe people from all walks of life can come away with a lot from partaking in this conference.
—For someone living in, or that has a relationship with, North America, an understanding of the land and original communities seems pretty crucial—what they’re doing today, how their experience is, what their priority and needs are. And as a subsegment of that, absolutely every corporate Diversity & Inclusion program should be signing up its designers, communicators and decision-makers to attend.
—For anyone that’s an educator, or leads a design/advertising/communication department, these presentations contain content that you’re not going to get from textbooks—as it’s mostly not been written. And here you have a chance to get it in real time, and in a much more engaging format. (We also have group rates for students, so get in touch directly.)
—For anyone that writes a minority script, or feels that the roots to their language contain a different style or aesthetic from what is currently mainstream, there are a lot of lessons to be learned in how to preserve, create or revive typographic practices.
—Last and very much not least, for anyone that loves great art, or design, or typography, we have incredibly talented practitioners giving us a rare glimpse of their works. And the presentations, like typography itself, span genres and categories, so there’s something for almost everyone.
It’s like travel, right? By learning another person’s experience, we get to understand ourselves and our place in the world better. And very rarely do we get a chance to hear from Native practitioners in an open forum such as this; it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Bobby Joe Smith III: Lakota, the language of my people, predates English. The language, along with all of the cosmological, ontological and epistemological knowledge coded into it, was passed down over millennia without the use of a written form. As a highly mobile, pre-dominantly nomadic society, there was no need for a writing system, let alone an unwieldy archive of information recorded on bound sheets of pulverized plant matter. Although we did not create an alphabet, we still possessed multiple means of visual communication, which employed a variety of symbols representing concepts from the mundane to the divine. These forms of visual language were typically adorned (and thus portable), used to bring out the beauty of a particular object, imbue it with power or significance, or aid in the practice of our oral traditions. The formal attributes, tools and substrates of this visual language reflect the needs and values of its speakers.
If my ancestors needed a writing system like the Latin alphabet, we would have built it. The ongoing violent occupation of my ancestral lands, coupled with state-sanctioned projects of cultural genocide (e.g., boarding schools, “kill the Indian to save the man,” etc.) have created a situation today in which my tribe needs a writing system to document and preserve our language. The belief is that if our language is well-documented, it can go dormant rather than extinct when the last of our fluent speakers pass away. The syllabaries and orthographies developed in recent years to write and record Lakota were designed with this initiative in mind. They use Latin glyphs accompanied by a series of diacritics most familiar to linguists. Notably, however, early attempts to create a method for writing Lakota were devised by Christian missionaries to translate the bible into Lakota with the hope of expediting our conversion to Christianity. Subsequently, the early Lakota syllabaries were tools of colonization rather than organic expressions from the people for whom Lakota was their Native tongue. They were also often designed around the mark-making capabilities of the typewriter—an emerging, commercially available technology favored by anthropologists, government agents, and other paper pushers hanging around the reservation. Today, however, the primary means of communication and mark-making amongst the Lakota are computational, mobile and networked.
The visual design of Indigenous languages like my own, Lakota, is more than a formal exercise. It must contend with the needs and desires, histories and futures, symbolisms and realities of its Native speakers. It must honor the dead and welcome its future users. These are sentiments that likely resonate with type designers. Although my entry into the field of type design emerged out of an interest in the revitalization of my Native culture, as opposed to a lifelong admiration of letterforms, it is exciting to be engaging in this design challenge today.
Boney Jr.: The general public thinks of Native people as being relics of the past. It’s far too common to see us being written about and discussed in the past tense. Native writing systems like Cherokee syllabary demonstrate that we as a people have rich, continuous history. We continue to document our social histories, governmental processes, religious and cultural practices, and intellectual life through our writing. Existence of Cherokee syllabary fonts allows us to continue being seen in the 21st century.
Harjo: Native written languages are part of language preservation, which is history. A very new concept to most people, it is important to understand that many of the written languages that are being developed for Native tribes/nations are relatively new and still going through changes and stages of implementation within Native communities.
I presume most of the participants of Ezhishin have gone through the mainstream Western methods of learning design and typography. How does this background mesh with Native backgrounds?
Southall: It’s going to be individualistic for every person, and everyone’s experiences and tribal culture(s) are going to shape that person in unique ways. The positions that Native designers hold are varied, and everyone has their own creative priorities. For the Ezhishin conference, we have speakers across the United States and Canada participating, and attendees will be able to see the diversity evident in their work.
As an Anishinaabe person, it’s important for me to study Anishinaabe cosmology, visual systems and aesthetics, and to intelligently reinterpret and apply these to my own work. When I design within inter-tribal contexts, it’s important for me to understand the Indigenous design conventions that I am working with to use them properly and respectfully. Whether I am using some facet of Swiss Style or another framework, it is important for me to be aware of how I engage with ideas and to be cognizant of the messaging I am creating. Thus far, my layout design favors a minimalist aesthetic that is unmistakably influenced by Western design conventions. However, what is more to the point is that I create work that broadly aligns with my values. Graphic designers have been culpable for promoting and popularizing harmful ideologies and imagery. The idea of some pure design objectivity and neutrality is false; we all have our own experiences, perspectives, cultures and biases that we bring to the table as designers. It’s important for me to question paradigms. I think it’s fair to say that many Native designers are especially mindful that they are part of a broader community and have responsibilities to them.
Chris Skillern: I’m a graduate of Type West and am passionate about type in general. I can’t speak for other writing systems, but I absolutely believe that the basic rules of type design apply to the Cherokee syllabary as well, especially given its history and the changes that were made to Sequoyah’s designs when it made the transition to metal type. At the same time, I would love to see, and even help develop, educational materials geared specifically toward designing the syllabary.
Boney Jr.: I studied graphic design in college just around the time the transition was occurring from the literal cut-and-paste days to digital design. As a Cherokee who grew with a household that had Cherokee-language bibles, newspapers and other documents written in our language, I was always fascinated by letterforms. I brought that familiarity of the Cherokee syllabary to my studies in typography and design. Design education meshes very well in some ways with Cherokee philosophy, particularly the idea of approaching design in a solution-based way. When Sequoyah developed the Cherokee syllabary in the early 1800s, he did it to solve the problem of why our people were not communicating like the white settlers encroaching on Cherokee territory at the time. His invention allowed our people to educate the public about the policies that were stripping away tribal lands and to inform the Cherokee citizens through the mass media of the era, the newspaper.
Harjo: My educational background has afforded me the opportunity to design typefaces that truly have meaning but also has allowed me to be an asset/tool to help with developing resources for my tribe. On the flip side, as a master’s student and Ph.D. student, researching/planning/writing about Native American typography was very new to all of my professors/colleagues and so it helped to educate and shed light on this topic to non-natives/natives on the other end.
Regarding Sequoyah’s development of a Cherokee syllabary, are such revelations from the past going to be addressed by Ezhishin‘s speakers? Or is this conference focused more on contemporary work?
Southall: Several of our speakers are Cherokee and are designing typefaces and incorporating the Cherokee syllabary into projects, such as Chris Skillern and Monique Ortman. Roy Boney and Jeff Edwards, program managers within the Cherokee Language Department and creatives themselves, will give a talk about the Cherokee syllabary. The work of these aforementioned individuals is deeply tied to the history of Sequoyah’s work. Notably, Boney was part of the team that brought integration of the Cherokee language into Google and Apple products.
Additionally, Dr. Jessica Harjo will be speaking about an Osage typeface that she developed as part of her graduate work. Speaker Leo Vicenti created a typeface suited for the Jicarilla Apache language, and we also have speakers who have created Cree syllabic typefaces and/or are working with Cree syllabics, including Sébastien Aubin, Joi T. Arcand, Violet Duncan and Kaylene Big Knife.
Skillern: Several of us will be addressing it in some form. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a type designer, the syllabary is a primary focus of mine. It’s an enormously important part of our culture and a monumental achievement. Even so, we suffer from a dearth of well-designed fonts, and I hope that I can help in designing more high-quality and contemporary syllabary fonts, because I believe it’s important for the survival of the language. There are a few other Cherokee presenters at the conference who are working toward the same goal and some non-Cherokee presenters who have made great syllabary fonts in the past.
There is quite a long roster of speakers. Would you say that the design establishment has been benignly neglectful of Native output, or is there something more historically distorted?
Samarskaya: A lot of people accept, and continue, on any given path as if it’s normal. It’s physics, right? An object in motion will continue with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon. And culture is a relay race in motion. So today’s design establishment might think that because they’re not actively excluding something that they’ve subsequently covered everything there is to cover. I think that hospitality, and outreach, is a much more proactive endeavor. And if you exclude a community for long enough, you have to pivot harder to show that the mentality of the establishment has started to shift.
So, to get to the heart of the matter. Settlers killed off almost all of the buffalo to starve out the Native populations. Mount Rushmore was carved on sacred ground in order to annihilate it. Residence schools, which you ask about in the other interviews, were created for the sole purpose of wiping out generational knowledge and collective identity. And none of this was very long ago. So I think nothing is exactly by accident. That all is, at least originally, by someone’s design, and subsequent sleight of hand that makes us used to accepting it as normal.
Erasing culture is a very powerful political weapon. As is the rebuilding of it.
Southall: There’s no doubt that the history of genocide and racism against Native peoples in the European colonization of the Americas set the scene for everything else. The design establishment has participated in, benefited from and perpetuated white supremacy, and we all know that the world of design in the USA and Canada has a diversity problem. Art and design schools have routinely relied on Eurocentric curricula and philosophies in their instruction. I’m glad that at this point in time, there’s been serious critiques about the narrow selection of individuals and perspectives that have been elevated and centered throughout the years. And, with the developments of the internet and social media, I’m glad for the ways that the brilliant work of Native and other BIPOC designers are more accessible. For all the serious issues with social media and the internet at large, they have also allowed a number of individuals to share their work and perspectives in a democratized way. There are many stories yet to be incorporated within the design canon, but things are shifting and, I hope, will continue to shift.
Historically, Native people’s creative outputs have often been relegated to mere ethnographic curiosities by white power holders, and consequently, their work has been viewed as less intelligent than the creative output of other people. It’s not hard to find a book that refers to our ancestors’ work as primitive. Even someone as innovative and prolific as Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau, who died in 2007, had his work described with backhanded compliments and racially charged language. I work within the Native art sphere, where I myself have seen uninformed attitudes and problematic power dynamics. Why shouldn’t our Native ancestors be considered designers—they intentionally created well-made, useful, informative and, dare I say, beautiful works. Or is the label of designer only meant for particular classes and ethnic backgrounds, or those of a particular gender, for that matter? As the exhibition description of Hearts of Our People notes, “Women have long been the creative force behind Native art.” Considering how negative stereotypes about Native peoples are so deeply embedded within society at large, plenty of people in the dominant culture wouldn’t even stop to think that we just might have something to offer, and for some people, it would be a revelation to know that we even exist. For some, I do think the lack of inclusion is benign, because if they knew what was out there, they would be excited about it too. Everyone alive today inherits the situation that has come before, and I certainly don’t think everyone has a negative intention. However, once you understand the context in which we are operating, there’s a responsibility to take action if you have the ability to do so.
Skillern: I think the challenge for Native designers is the same as it is in most areas, and that is visibility. Native people and their contributions are routinely overlooked. It does feel like the tide is starting to turn a bit, with TV shows like “Reservation Dogs,” among other things, and I’m hopeful that this conference can be part of that.
Boney Jr: I studied design both as an undergraduate and graduate student. Nowhere in any of those courses did any book or class touch on Indigenous design or typography. There might have been some references to Indigenous African art and its influence on modern art, or a passing reference to Mayan codexes. But as far as any serious study, there was none. As part of my graduate school work, I did several projects utilizing Cherokee syllabary. It was a learning experience not just for me but for my fellow students and instructors, as well.
We routinely talk about cultural differences influencing design in general. Native cultures have been often lumped together as monolithic. What revelations regarding diversity within the Native communities stand out regarding design and type?
Samarskaya: That happens a lot, doesn’t it? Often it’s with acronyms—BIPOC, LBGTQIA+. I guess all the Native communities were too much to fit into one acronym but I sure would be amused if someone tried. There’s a map that geographer and designer David Edmondson has been working on cataloging the living and dormant languages of the U.S. and Canada, viewable here. Just glancing at it you can see the immense wealth of linguistic cultures that span this region. An even more robust resource is the Native Land site, where you can toggle off of territories and onto languages as you spin around the globe. It really helps put things into perspective.
There’re a few studies that’ve been done that link linguistic diversity to biodiversity in a given region, which is something that’s always somewhere in the back of my mind—how encouraging a thriving diversity of linguistic and typographical practices can fractal in all these other ways to benefit our planet and environment.
Boney Jr: Cherokee syllabary was the first writing system developed for a tribe by a member of the tribe in the United States. Since that time several other native languages have developed writing systems and fonts, particularly Canadian First Nations. What is interesting about them all is how these communities have helped each other. For example, the Cherokee Nation’s work with Unicode resulted in connecting the Osage Nation with some encoders and typographers to get their writing system encoded into Unicode. This is reflective of the supportive and collaborative nature of Indigenous peoples.
Smith III: The “Native” of the American imaginary is an invention designed to serve the desires of our colonizers—whether it’s language about “merciless Indian Savages” inked in the U.S. Declaration of Independence to justify settler insurrection from the British empire, sage wisdom bequeathed through broken English to cleanse polluted landscapes and spirits, or caricatures clad in buckskin and feathers to sell everything from tobacco to trapper keepers and event tickets. The invention of “the Native” and the narratives and actions the caricature propels are violent and dehumanizing—intentionally so. It diminishes on an intercontinental scale the vast array of identities, cultural expressions and ways of knowing and being that came from and flourished upon this land long before Columbus’ wayward voyage. From this monolithic representation of indigenous identity has proliferated the pastiche of pan-Indian design.
Pan-Indian design—as I’ve experienced it—is a one-dimensional caricature of indigenous visual expression that pales in comparison to the plethora of striking and unique visual languages emanating from the hundreds of indigenous cultures still in existence in the United States. Early on in my design education, I was encouraged by Lakota scholar and graphic designer Sadie Redwing to look beyond the façade of pan-Indian design trafficked to us through the corporate imaginary by investigating the visual language specific to our own tribe. Looking at the various forms of Lakota visual expression, both traditional and contemporary, has been an inspiring and humbling revelation in form, aesthetics and praxis. The shallow, decontextualized and generic nature of pan-Indian design felt stagnant and suffocating. In stark contrast, the generative relationship I am fostering with the design traditions of my people has freed my definition of design from the confines of the wasicu (“settler”) imagination and, consequently, liberated my understanding of who I can be and what I can make as a designer, especially a “Native designer.”
Harjo: There are over 565 tribes/nations in North America. Some tribes/nations fall under similar language groups but they still have different dialects and speaking patterns that are unique even within their own type design. It is impossible for one designer to know about all languages and not enough designers to fully relate to all the needs that each tribe/nation is undergoing in terms of design/type/written language development.
In conversations regarding the genesis of this conference, was there much talk about why it has taken so long?
Harjo: Everything is new in my opinion, and design research is underfunded in this area and often misunderstood by non-designer entities. The pandemic provided a nice segue into online learning/virtual conferences, a great cost-efficient way to connect and network.
We’ve read about the infamous residence-schools where Native peoples were forcibly and brutally assimilated into white society. Language and writing was a big part of this system. How, if in any way, did it impact typography and type design?
Southall: This is a heavy question, and one that Native communities are grappling with. Across Canada and the United States, many Native children in boarding schools were physically abused and punished for expressing their cultures and speaking their languages, which has put many Native languages at risk. There’s no doubt that we are dealing with the repercussions of this abuse. Many tribes are challenged with figuring out how to carry their languages into the future, and type designers have a role to play in this process. It’s an incredibly complex situation.
The typographic needs of Native communities and potential areas of application are broad. The Ojibwe language itself has only recently become more standardized when it comes to spelling (and it can also be written in Canadian Aboriginal syllabics). Knowing about the success of the Cherokee syllabary, I think it would be exciting to see Native typographers develop new syllabaries to suit their respective languages. Recently, I designed an exhibition catalog for WINIKO: Life of an Object for the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma. There are 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma and many different languages to consider, given the history of forced relocation of diverse tribes to the state. I was instructed to use Noto Sans because it was designed to accommodate a broad range of languages and had the necessary diacritical marks for the Native languages in question. I also specifically used Noto Sans Cherokee and Noto Sans Osage.
Boney Jr.: The aim of these schools was to wipe out any lingering Indigenous cultural aspects of the students’ lives. This meant the language of choice was English. I believe this resulted in a community response among Cherokees, in particular, to be sure that our writing system did not die. In 2021, the Cherokee Nation celebrated the bicentennial of the Cherokee syllabary. In 200 years since its invention, we have ensured that has not happened.
Harjo: Something to understand is that besides the Cherokee syllabary, the development of written Native languages did not come to many tribes until more recently. For example, the Osage orthography of the Osage Nation was not fully developed until 2005. Many tribes/nations believe (and still is true) that oral language learning is best. Written language only came to (some) tribes/nations as first speakers began to die and there was a more urgent need to document language in order to preserve it. This shift is very new to many. The forced assimilation to white society was the bowling ball that killed a lot of languages, and if a language was not forgotten, there were many language speakers that feared for their lives and their future generations’ lives if they continued to speak their own language. Language dies with them. The work of Native American typography and type design today is one attempt to reverse the damage that was done, although, things will never be the same.
What are the parameters of this conference? Is it meant to be an ongoing conversation or a one-off event? This is such an underexplored, if explored at all, area of design history. What is the intended outcome?
Samarskaya: I’m going to merge those two questions into one, and say that I definitely intend for this to be part of an expanding set of conversations. TDC started a dedicated Slack group for Ezhishin that’s going to stay open for all speakers, participants and attendees after the conference. There are free workshops for participants as well, one on using contemporary design software and how to turn your lettering or designs into a proper working font, and another one that gives a full tutorial on how to get a new script through Unicode. (There are two other workshops we’re in conversations about by Native practitioners, but those are yet unconfirmed.) We’re working on finding the right partner and will announce a scholarship for Native designers that we can start distributing every year. And as we could only focus on the regions spanning the U.S. and Canada in this round, we already have another conference in the works focusing on the Indigenous scripts and type practitioners spanning Latin America (an irony to use that label in this context) for next year. So this conference, it’s a place to plant seeds and bridge the communication channels between Native designers and those with budgets, or megaphones, or differing expertise. And I hope that when we come back to do the next edition, it’s an even bigger explosion of talent and more nuanced dialogue.
Skillern: Speaking for myself, I hope it draws more attention to the importance of designing for Native scripts and to the contributions of Native designers in particular, and I hope it inspires and encourages other Native designers. I’d love to see it become a regular event!
Harjo: Personal outcomes: to educate on how we got here today; to expose others to the incredible work Native designers are doing; to provide a network of Native designers that are interested in/involved in type design; and to ground this subject in order to build off of it in the future. I’m sure this will be an ongoing thing, at least that is what I envision.
Boney Jr.: Several years ago, Jeff and I attended a Typecon in New Orleans. We talked about the history of the syllabary and why it was important it is still being used in our schools. That one appearance led to quite a number of designers taking up the challenge of making Cherokee syllabary fonts. Since that time, every major operating system, from iOS, Android, Windows and Mac has a handful of Cherokee syllabary fonts included. We hope this conference results in growing the community of Indigenous typographers, whether they are legitimately Indigenous people or are allies of our cause.