Rayna Green, Curator, National Museum of American History
Sequoyah (or George Gist or Guess) was a Cherokee trader, a silversmith, a blacksmith, an artist, and a Cherokee speaker who neither read nor wrote English. But he saw the power of those who could communicate using the "talking leaves." It inspired him to invent one of the few known (and used) writing systems created entirely by an individual. He analyzed his native language, designed a writing system to represent it, and taught Cherokees to use it. Sequoyah’s "syllabary" proved a major tool in the Cherokee battle for survival at a time when Cherokee lives, lands, and cultures were under siege.
He was born around 1770 near Tuskegee (Taskigi) in what would become Tennessee (Tanasi). Around 1809, Sequoyah gave up farming, trading, and smithing to pursue his new passion. At first, he thought he could make a symbol for every word in the Cherokee language, but he quickly abandoned that impossible idea. He made a few other experiments, non-starters all. But when he attempted to divide words into their parts, he recognized that there are only 86 syllables in Cherokee. Rather quickly then, he constructed the now famous "syllabary" of 86 letters, each representing a sound in the spoken language. He took ideas for the written letters from both English books he had at hand (e.g., a local English spelling book and a Bible) and from English, Greek, Latin, and even Cyrillic and Arabic letters. He devised the others needed. The artist Sequoyah was thus able to transform existing and print letters into entirely new symbols. All a Cherokee speaker had to learn was the 86 characters, and she or he could, almost immediately, write and read what was written.
When he began to talk about his project, many thought Sequoyah a dreamer, possibly crazy, or worse, a sorcerer. He was in fact tried for sorcery, but he demonstrated, by testing his own daughter, Ayoka, that indeed the symbols on the papers represented words as they were spoken. Within weeks, he had taught his accusers his system, and they advocated its use among Cherokees. The General Council commissioned a printing press and typefaces from a Boston firm and started a newspaper (the Cherokee Phoenix) printed in Cherokee and English. In addition, hundreds of students in the Cherokees’ very active school system learned how to use the new tool.
With Sequoyan, the people could and did send letters, keep records of official business, and make libraries of cultural materials such as dances, songs, and stories, as well as medical and magical formulas. And the Nation used the writing system in their own communications about the imperiled future of Cherokees, who, by 1820, were deep into the internal and national debates over their status in the East. Sequoyah himself had moved to Arkansas, but continued to travel back East and then again to the West after the main Removal (i.e., The Trail of Tears) in 1838. He died in Mexico around 1843 while on a journey from his home in Indian Territory to locate other Cherokees who had been divided from the Nation during Removal.
But he died knowing that his invention had given his people a defensive tool as important as guns in their continuing search for autonomy and sovereignty. Though little used on a daily basis by most Cherokee today, Sequoyah’s invention remains a significant achievement, while it continues to act as an instrument for cultural preservation and a source of pride for the Cherokee people.
From Prototype, November 2009