Famous Cherokee Indians: Sequoyah, a Literary Genius
Every day, we take the written word for granted. It conveys thoughts and emotions. It details complex designs and abstract thoughts. If it weren’t for the written word, civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist.
For a moment, imagine what life would be like without the written word. Would we still be roaming about in the dark ages, reliant on stories passed down from generation to generation to pass on knowledge? Would the great Roman civilization that brought so much to western culture have ever existed?
The American Indian of bygone days didn’t have to imagine. Their knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. Their knowledge of the Roman Empire was nonexistent. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the Cherokee developed the written word. It only took one man of great genius and inspiration to change the course of Cherokee history.
Sequoyah’s Syllabary: From Ridicule to Fame
Sequoyah was born in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee, Tennessee in the 1770’s. Because he was of mixed blood, half Indian and half white, and because of an apparent early learning disability, he was nicknamed “The Lame One”. Throughout his early years, Sequoyah struggled to find his identity.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Sequoyah joined the American Army to fight against the British and the Creek Redsticks in the War of 1812. The term “Redsticks” was given to the members of the Creek tribe allied with the British. Having never heard of reading or writing and barely able to utter a single syllable of English, Sequoyah was fascinated with the documents that the white soldiers possessed.
Sequoyah discovered that with the aid of the “talking leaves” that were brought to the American soldiers by messengers, the white men could learn what was happening to their wives and families at home. The Cherokees, except the few who knew English, had no letters to read.
After the war ended, Sequoya returned to his home in Tennessee, determined to find a way for the Cherokees to read and write their own language. He brought his idea to the tribal leaders of the Cherokee. As most Native Americans were at the time, they were steeped in tradition.
The Cherokee told Sequoyah of an ancient tradition, which accounted for the Indians way of life. In the beginning, the great father created the Indian and gave him a book. Later, he created the white man and gave him a bow and arrow. The Indian was indifferent to the book, so the white man stole it from him. Since the Indian forfeited his right to the book, He was then given the bow and arrow and from then on had to gain his substance by hunting.
Sequoya was ridiculed for his attempts and was sent away. Undaunted, he still boasted that he could create a written language for the Cherokee. Unaided, he set about trying to convert the Cherokee language to writing.
First, he tried to make a symbol for each word, but after several months, he had several thousand characters with no end in sight. Next, he tried to use sounds, but by the time he had recorded samples from more than 200 sounds, it was obvious that this was also too unwieldy for practical use.
For nine years, Sequoyah resolutely pressed on, still with no support. Not only was Sequoyah ridiculed, fellow tribesmen looked upon him as a poor provider for his family because he spent so little time working his farmland. His wife berated him, and he moved into a small cabin to pursue his studies. At the instigation of his wife, neighbors burned the cabin, destroying all his work. It was generally felt Sequoyah was conniving with evil spirits.
It took Sequoyah three more years before he hit upon the idea of dividing the words into syllables. With the help of his daughter, He reduced the Cherokee language to 86 syllables, and by 1821, after 12 years of work, Sequoyah had created the Cherokee alphabet. He took English letters for symbols, copying them from a newspaper he could not read. He even used some Greek letters he found in a book, and added designs of his own making.
In all of history, Sequoyah was the only Native American Indian to conceive and perfect an entire alphabet. Still, Sequoyah’s system was not a true alphabet, were each symbol stands for a single sound. It was a syllabary, where each symbol stands for a combination of sounds. Sequoyah’s syllabary contains eighty-six characters.
His next problem was getting skeptical Cherokees to accept his invention. He taught his syllabary to the Cherokees in Arkansas. After learning the syllabary, they wrote a letter to friends In the Cherokee nation east of the Mississippi. Sequoyah took the letter to Tennessee and read it. To everyone’s surprise, the miracle of the “talking leaves” was unveiled. Sequoyah presented a message all the way from Arkansas, sealed in paper, which could be spoken from the paper precisely as it had been written.
Still, this did not persuade the Cherokee Indian. It took something much more profound to sway the stubborn tribal leaders. Sequoyah, with the help of his twelve-year-old daughter, demonstrated the efficiency of his syllabary to the Cherokee National Council. He had the council dictate a message while he remained outside, and upon reentering the room, he easily read the message aloud to the stunned councilmen.
Over the next few weeks, the Cherokee councilmen learned the system and taught it to their families. Sequoyah boasted that he could teach his System to others in a week or less. Everyone in the Cherokee Nation taught someone else, and within three months, 90% of the Cherokees were literate in Cherokee.
The Cherokee Nation set up its own schools and taught its children to read and write their own language. A printing press with Cherokee characters was constructed in Boston and sent to the Cherokee Nation. By 1828, The Cherokee advocate was being printed, partially in Cherokee and partially in English. Other publications printed in the Cherokee characters included magazines, Bibles, and hymnbooks.
Now Sequoyah was honored instead of ridiculed. He journeyed to Washington as a member of the Arkansas treaty delegation. A medal was struck in his honor; his portrait was painted by Charles Bird King.
With the westward push of white Americans into Native American lands, the Cherokee were doomed to give up their ancient homelands. Shortly after the newspaper sprang into existence, gold was discovered in the Cherokee Lands. As is recorded all throughout American history, the Indian lands were once again seized by white man.
Sequoyah, wise and far seeing in many ways, moved westward before the Cherokee removal took place. He farmed a plot of land near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation awarded him the right to develop and sell the salt from a large mineral spring near his home. This unique pension, granted to a Native American literary figure by his own tribe, helps show us the Cherokee Nation’s respect for Sequoyah.
He moved to a permanent home near Sallisaw in modern Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. There he spent many years teaching his alphabet to anybody who would come to learn. During this time, he also served as a delegate for the Cherokee Nation, fighting in Washington for Indian rights.
When Sequoyah was an old man, he and his son, with some other young Cherokee men, journeyed to Mexico so that Sequoyah could study the languages of the Indians living there. Sequoyah died before he met any Mexican Indians. He died in northern Mexico in 1843, and his unmarked grave has never been found. His log cabin still stands at Sallisaw, with a stone museum building built around it.
When Oklahoma became a state, and had the right to place statues of two great men in the Statuary Hall of Fame in the national Capitol, the first statue was a memorial to Sequoyah. The second is also a memorial to another great Cherokee, Will Rogers of Oologah, who was as much loved by Indians and white Oklahomans in his time as Sequoyah was in his.
Visiting Sequoyah's Cabin
Route 1, Box 141
Sallisaw, OK 74955-9744
Hours & Admission
Tue - Fri: 9am to 5pm
Sat - Sun: 2pm to 5pm
To reach the cabin from Sallisaw, travel north on U.S. Highway 59 for three miles, then turn right on Oklahoma Highway 101 and follow it seven miles to the historic site.
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© 2011 Eric Standridge