The Tongue of the Cherokee is a site-specific work that reflects on an outstanding Native American achievement—the invention of a Cherokee alphabet by Sequoyah. Born a few years before the American Revolution in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee in Tennessee, Sequoyah believed that his culture could endure only by establishing a new identity through the written word. Between 1809 and 1821, he devised a written language of eighty-five characters representing the significant syllables of the Cherokees' spoken language. Although Sequoyah patterned some of the letter forms after English characters that he found in spelling books, he used them without regard for the conventions of written English. He may be the only person in history to have singlehandedly invented an alphabet.
Baumgarten's choice of site is vital to the significance of this work: he has inscribed the Cherokee alphabet upon the glass panels of the skylight in The Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Sculpture. The letters unfold their rhythm above this hall, which was modeled on the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athena in Greece. Directly below the skylight is a plaster reproduction of the carved frieze from the Parthenon. Such elements of classical civilization were touted in Pittsburgh as antidotes for the industrialization that dominated the city.
By situating Native American language within the context of an architectural monument derived from Western culture, Baumgarten sought an end to the exclusion of one culture by another and to spurious claims of cultural superiority. This dialectic work honors Sequoyah's place in American history, in the spirit of considering all people as part of a single society.