Joining the ranks of Northeastern State University’s Sequoyah Fellows on Wednesday was award-winning artist Roy Boney Jr.
The Sequoyah Fellow program provides an opportunity for NSU and the College of Liberal Arts to recognize an outstanding scholar in the field of Native American studies, and provides him or her with a chance to share expertise with the NSU community. Boney is the seventh Sequoyah Fellow to be named, following a slate of past Cherokees – like former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Nation Senior Policy Adviser Dr. Neil Morton, and Cherokee Nation’s delegate to the U.S. Congress, Kim Teehee.
NSU President Steve Turner said each Fellow is dedicated to enhancing the lives of others.
“Every one of them have made a significant positive contribution to this institution and to our students,” he said. “I can’t say enough of how important it is that a seed planted some time ago continues to have a positive impact in 2021.”
Boney and Matthew Shepherd created the graphic novel series, “Dead Eyes Open,” which Boney also illustrated. He’s received numerous art awards, including the grand prize at the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Trail of Tears Art Show.
Several of his paintings can be found in the permanent collection of the Sequoyah National Research Center. He’s also a writer, has worked on documentaries, and has dedicated much time to helping revitalize the Native tongue as manager of the Cherokee Nation's Language Program.
Boney was featured as an artist, writer and cover artist in the “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers,” which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award in 2018. Turner said that while Boney had no way of knowing until Wednesday, his work in graphic novel was actually considered and used as a resource for the NSU Veterans Monument and Plaza Committee.
Cherokee Nation Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said Boney was instrumental in helping bring the Cherokee language to Apple devices.
“Roy would come in on a regular basis and would say, 'We have got to get the Cherokee language on the iOS so that our kids can communicate in the language once they get out of school. We have to do this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. That’s a good idea.’ And he just literally leaned across the desk and said, ‘No, we have to do this.’ It was just a few months later that we actually went to Apple, sat down across the table from them, and within a matter of months, it was a reality,” Enlow said.
Turner and Enlow thought it was fitting that someone who has dedicated time to protecting the Cherokee language was named the Sequoyah Fellow, and on the 200th anniversary of Sequoyah's creating the Cherokee syllabary.
Boney called Sequoyah the ultimate Cherokee scholar, as it was his idea to capture the people’s thoughts on paper. As a result, there are 200 years of Cherokee intellectual thought to be studied.
“Roughly in the 1960s is when the generational decline of the language started happening,” Boney said. “So what we’re trying to do now is reverse that. One of the big tools we have to do that is the Cherokee syllabary. Without Sequoyah’s invention, we’d be at a loss.”
He grew up with a father who read and spoke Cherokee, and as a kid, he frequently ran across the famous image of Sequoyah pointing to a tablet of the syllabary writing system. He would draw pictures of Sequoyah and was encouraged to become a Native artist. At the time, Boney said, he was only aware of the Southwest Native art style and “stereotypical touristy art.”
“That never appealed to me," Boney said. “So when I really seriously got into Cherokee-themed art, my idea was to take our history and our culture and inject newness into it, in terms of what was my experience as a Cherokee person. A lot of times, there are gatekeepers who try to define what Cherokee is, whether that’s language, art, culture, history. But that’s all of ours. Every Cherokee person, that belongs to us collectively.”