HENRY INMAN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN
Sequoyah was one of the most influential figures in Cherokee history. He created the Cherokee Syllabary, a written form of the Cherokee language. The syllabary allowed literacy and printing to flourish in the Cherokee Nation in the early nineteenth century and remains in use today.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, the remarkable inventiveness of one Cherokee man, named Sequoyah, helped his people preserve their language and cultural traditions and remain united with each other amid the encroachments of Euro-American society. Working on his own over a twelve-year span, Sequoyah created a syllabary—a set of written symbols to represent each syllable in the spoken Cherokee language. This made it possible for the Cherokee to achieve mass literacy in a short period of time. Cherokee became one of the earliest indigenous American languages to have a functional written analogue.
Sequoyah was born in present-day Tennessee in the years preceding the American Revolution. He was afflicted by physical lameness that caused him to limp, and as a young man, he worked as a trader, an industry he learned from his mother. He later became a silversmith and a blacksmith. By the year 1809, he had spent considerable time thinking about the written forms of communication used by European Americans and the power of written language. He began considering how the Cherokee might devise a system of writing tailored to the sounds of their own language. Many of his fellow Cherokees disapproved of the idea of fixing words to paper, and some thought the practice was too close to witchcraft. Despite this disapproval, Sequoyah was determined to give the Cherokee language a written form.
During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.
At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.
Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the wordsof Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.
Unfortunately, the War of 1812 forced him to put his plans to develop a written Cherokee language on hold. Sequoyah volunteered to fight against the Red Stick Creeks during the war and saw action at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in present-day Alabama. Afterwards, he settled in Willstown (present-day Fort Payne, Alabama) and devoted himself to the task of converting the Cherokee language into written form.
Sequoyah was monolingual—he spoke only his mother tongue, Cherokee—and thus did not know how to read or write in any language. Despite this, he had an intuitive grasp of the funciton and significance written communication could assume among people who had mastered the skill. His first approach was to draw a visual symbol for every word in the language—a logographic or pictographic approach. Before long, he realized this task would be overwhelming. Instead, he began listening more carefully to Cherokee speech, studying the sound patterns that formed words. He heard vowels and consonants and discerned many variations, finally isolating about eighty-five distinct syllables. He completed the syllabary by assigning each sound a symbol, using a printed Christian Bible for examples of how letters could be shaped.
Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.
Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.
Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.
As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?
Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.
Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.
Now for the rest of the story:
Imagine a large tree. No, let’s try this again. Imagine a large tree. Now imagine this tree as a branch, not a tree, attached to another much larger tree. Now imagine that much larger tree. That is how the giant sequoia do.
The giant sequoia is named after Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. Giant sequoia are really big trees, in fact the very largest trees on Earth and the oldest living thing on earth, some more than 3,000 years old!
A great tree, named after a great Man!