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Sequoyah: inventor of talking leaves

By Michael Beadle

Sequoyah is perhaps one of the most recognizable names in Native American history — and quite rightly so. After all, he was the only person in human history to invent a language on his own without first having the skills to read or write.

The symbols he developed into a syllabary are used to identify all the syllabic sounds of the Cherokee language, a feat that helped the Cherokees record and save their culture.

But who was Sequoyah?

His birth and death are both something of a mystery, and his life is full of colorful anecdotes that mix fact with fiction. For starters, Sequoyah’s birthdate is unknown. Historians believe Sequoyah, or Sikwayi, was born George Gist or Guess in Eastern Tennessee near Tanasee somewhere around the 1770s. According to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn., Sequoyah was born in Tuskeegee in eastern Tennessee. Sequoyah’s father was a white Virginia fur trader named Nathaniel Gist, and his mother, Wut-teh, was the daughter of a Cherokee chief.

Sequoyah grew up learning the Cherokee ways of hunting and herbal medicine from elders. While trading with other villages, he discovered the art of silversmithing and became a skilled craftsman in the art.

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One day, one of his customers suggested Sequoyah sign his pieces as other white silversmiths did, but Sequoyah didn’t know how to read or write in English. He became interested in developing “talking leaves,” a written Cherokee language that would allow the Cherokee to record information as he saw white people doing.

Meanwhile, encroaching white settlements pushed the Cherokee further off their lands as a result of European and American treaties, which most Cherokees could not read.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Sequoyah enlisted and served under General Andrew Jackson and fought British troops and Creek warriors in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. During his military service, Sequoyah again came to recognize the lack of writing skills Cherokees had, for they could not write letters home to family or document their experiences.

After the war, Sequoyah set out to develop a system of symbols that would represent every word in Cherokee culture. Amassing piles of symbols and pictures and working alone obsessively on the project, he was soon ridiculed for his idea and was even accused by his own family and friends for practicing witchcraft. Allegedly, his wife burned down his workshop, which stored his papers.

What might have been a major setback merely led him to another idea. Rather than come up with a symbol for each corresponding word in Cherokee, Sequoyah would use a symbol for each syllabic sound. In one story of this epiphany, Sequoyah was out on a walk where he heard birds singing. It inspired him to think about repeating sounds as the fundamental units of a language.

After several years of work, he came up with 85 symbols — six vowels and 11 consonants with various pitches and inflections — to represent all the sounds in Cherokee speech. Originally there were 86 symbols but one was dropped in order to fit them all in a printed version of the syllabary. Some of the symbols resemble Greek letters (theta and beta) or Arabic letters (curvy versions of “w”) while others look like letters from the English alphabet (Z, H, P, L, V). Each symbol represents a syllable, so the symbols are not technically called an alphabet.

With the help of his daughter Ayoka, Sequoyah demonstrated how quickly a person could learn the language. Soon, huge numbers of Cherokees learned to read and write in their own native language. A missionary from Boston — Rev. Samuel A. Worcester — helped print copies of the syllabary and soon there were translations of the Bible and religious hymns in Cherokee. By 1828, the first Native American newspaper — the Cherokee Phoenix — was published. For his efforts, the General Council of the Cherokee Nation honored Sequoyah with a silver medal.

According to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Sequoyah moved several times in his life — from his birthplace in Tuskegee, Tenn., to Willstown in north Alabama to Illinois Bayou, Ark., to Skin Bayou, Okla. By the time the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their lands and sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears (1838-’39), Sequoyah was already living in Oklahoma.

At the end of his life, Sequoyah traveled west again in search of Cherokees that had moved to Mexico. Historians claim that he died on this quest, but the site of his grave is unknown. In one story, Sequoyah was said to have ventured into Mexico (what is now Texas). The group he was with stopped to rest in a cave. Members of the group went out to look for food, but when they returned, Sequoyah had disappeared. His body was never found.

Since his death, Sequoyah’s fame has spread throughout the country, and today he’s generally considered one of the most famous names in American history.

The Oklahoma Library Association presents its annual book awards in his honor. There’s a Sequoyah County in Oklahoma, a Sequoyah Caverns in Alabama, a Mount Sequoyah in the Ozarks of Arkansas, and numerous schools and businesses use his name. The giant conifer tree of the Pacific coast, the Sequoia, and the national park in California are named after this Cherokee who gave his people the opportunity to read and write their own language.

Lynne Harlan, Russell Townsend, and Tom Hatley assisted with this article.

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