Manataka American Indian Council


   

 

SEQUOYAH
Sequoya, Sequoia, Sikwayi

Inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary

 

 

This is a story about a poor, crippled, uneducated and ridiculed half-breed Indian who triumphed over insurmountable odds to bring a gift to his people that was so great that it is unrivaled in all human history. 

Sequoyah was born sometime between 1760 and 1776 in Overhills country near the Cherokee village of Tushkeegee on the Tennessee River near old Fort Loudoun in Tennessee.   His mother, Wu-teh, was a member of the Paint Clan and his father, Nathanial Gist (Guess or Guest) was an English fur trader.   Sequoyah was raised in the old ways of the Cherokee and became a trapper and fur trader. 

He was given the name George Gist by his father.  As a result of an early hunting accident, he was given the name Sequoyah which means "pig's foot" in Cherokee.  After being permanently crippled, he developed a talent for craftsmanship, making silver ornaments and blacksmithing.  His handicap became the source of both ridicule and a blessing in his life.   

Sequoyah married a Cherokee woman and had a family.  He and his family moved to Cherokee County, Georgia.   Later, he and other Cherokees enlisted to fight on the side of the United States for General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 against the British and Creek Nation.     

Sequoyah never learned to read or write English, but while in Georgia he became captivated by whiteman's ability to communicate by making marks on paper and reading from "talking leaves." He began work on developing a Cherokee writing system in 1809.   During the war, he became convinced he was on the right path.  Unlike white soldiers, he did not write letters home and could not read military orders.

After the war Sequoyah began in earnest to create symbols that would make words.   He and his daughter, Ayoka, played games using the symbols.  He became obsessed with developing a new Cherokee alphabet writing system because he knew it would help his people.  Sequoyah became a recluse in his obsession to perfect the writing system.  He endured constant ridicule by friends and even family members, who said he was insane or practicing witchcraft. 

Sequoyah moved west to Arkansas and continued his work.  Finally, after  twelve years of labor, ridicule and abuse he finally reduced the complex language into 86 symbols, each representing a unique sound of Cherokee speech.  In 1821, after a demonstration of the system to amazed tribal elders, the Cherokee Nation adopted his alphabet, now called a 'syllabary'.  Thousands of Cherokees learned to read and write within a few years. 

In 1824 the Cherokee National Council at New Echota, Georgia, honored him with a silver medal, which he proudly wore for the rest of his life, and later with an annuity of $300, which his widow continued to receive after his death.

By 1825, the Bible and numerous religious hymns and pamphlets, educational materials and legal documents and books of every description were translated into the Cherokee language. 

In 1827, the Cherokee National Council appropriated funds to print the first Indian newspaper published in the United States.

"...Early the following year, the hand press and syllabary characters in type were shipped by water from Boston and transported overland the last two hundred miles by wagon to the capital of the Cherokee Nation, New Echota. The inaugural issue of the newspaper, "Tsa la gi Tsu lehisanunhi" or "Cherokee Phoenix", printed in parallel columns in Cherokee and English appeared on February 21, 1828." 
From "Mankiller" by Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, St. Martin's Press, 1993 pg 81-83 

In 1828, Sequoyah moved with the Western Cherokee to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  He was active in tribal politics and served as an envoy to Washington D.C. to assist displaced Eastern Cherokees.

He continued to serve Cherokee people as a statesman and diplomat until his death.  In his 80's and after many years of national recognition, Sequoyah fell ill and died in 1843 while searching for a band of Cherokees who, by tradition, had moved into Mexico before the revolution. The location of his grave is unknown.

His memory is honored in the names of two species of giant redwood trees and Sequoia National Park in California named after him.

Indian people were freed from the bonds of illiteracy by a poor, crippled, uneducated and ridiculed half-breed.  His single-handed achievement marks the only known instance of an individual creating a totally new system of writing.  Today, his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of his beloved Cherokee people.


THE CHEROKEE LANGUAGE

Sequoyah is credited by historians as the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.  However, ancient lore asserts there was a written Cherokee language thousands of years ago.  According to legend, the primeval Cherokee written language was lost as the tribe migrated across the continent and their numbers dwindled according to living conditions and influences of more numerous neighbors.

Cherokee comprises the southern branch of the Iroquoian language family. The northern branch Onodaga, Oneida, Seneca-Cayuga, and Mohawk. The linguistic split occurred about 3000 years ago, when the Cherokee migrated south from the Great Lakes region in east central North America to what is now Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina.

In the 1800's, historian Mooney found three dialects of the language as his studied the Cherokee culture.  The middle dialect, Kituwah, is the only one spoken by the Cherokee today.

Other indigenous people developed hieroglyphic writing systems, such as the Delaware, Ojibwa, Aztec and Maya.  But the only people to have created a syllabary type of alphabet are the Cherokee.

The Cherokee language split into two main dialects after the Cherokee began voluntary migration west to Arkansas prior to the Revolutionary War and continuing up to the Removals (Trail of Tears) in 1838-1839.   A small number of Cherokee hid in the mountains of North Carolina and later became the Eastern Band of Cherokee.  Today, the United Keetoowah (Kituwah) Band of Cherokees in Oklahoma comprise the largest concentration of traditional-speaking western-dialect Cherokees. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma conducts regular language programs.

Today, Cherokee is the second most widely used Native American language, spoken by an estimated 20,000 Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma and another 5,000 near the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina.

One of the few American Indian languages to be growing is Cherokee.

 


CHEROKEE SYLLABARY

READ THE 

Cherokee Dictionary
tsa-la-gi   di-de-tlo-qua-s-do-di
Over 3,000 words!
Translated from English to Cherokee

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Sequoyah's Gift: A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader

By Janet Klausner and Duane H. King

A biography of the Cherokee Indian who created a method for his people to write and read their own language. Sequoyah is best remembered for his remarkable feat of creating a Cherokee syllabary that allowed his people to read and write their own language. Klausner's detailed account includes discussion of Sequoyah's role during the Trail of Tears journey, the forced removal in 1838 of the Cherokee nation from Georgia to what became Oklahoma. Her evenhanded portrayal shows the criticism and ridicule Sequoyah endured from his people while developing the syllabary and discusses the disagreements among Cherokee leaders over leaving their homeland. Black-and-white illustrations include portraits of Sequoyah by different artists and a photo of his log house in Oklahoma. A detailed map is provided, along with an after word describing the significance of Sequoyah's contributions and how his memory has been honored. Also included are lists of places to visit and further resources. This is a solid work with many applications for study. HarperCollins, September 1999, Softcover, 111pp.  Out-of-Print.  Only good condition used copies available. See Notice below.  Was $ 29.95  Now $23.95

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