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When Europeans first landed in North America, they
found an industrious race of warrior people called Tsalagi living
in what is now eastern Tennessee and the Carolinas. The whites
called them "Cherokee." From this nation would come
a man whose extraordinary abilities would greatly serve and protect
his people. His name was Sequoyah.
Few questioned the abilities of Native Americans
as warriors. The Tsalagi were one of the foremost warrior nations.
But some questioned the intelligence of the Native Americans.
Were they truly capable of high intellectual attainment or were
they merely savages? Among others, Sequoyah would put this racist
silliness to rest.
Most agree that Sequoyah was born sometime in the
1770's in the Tsalagi village of Tuskeegee on the Tennessee. His
mother, Wurerth, belonged to the Paint Clan. Some argue that Sequoyah's
father was a white man from Virginia named Nathaniel Gist (sometimes
rendered "Guess"). Sequoyah is sometimes referred to
as George Guess or George Gist. Others insist that Sequoyah was
a full-blood; that he let himself be portrayed as a half-blood
to give more credence to his alphabet.
In any event, young Sequoyah was raised in the customs
and traditions of the Tsalagi people. As a young man, Sequoyah
was injured in a hunting accident and became partially lame. Perhaps
this made him more introspective. Sequoyah understood that much
of the power white men wielded at the expense of Native Americans
came from their ability to read and write. This stored information
was far more efficient than oral tradition and story-telling.
In about 1809, he began to plan his alphabet of the Tsalagi language.
Even so, Sequoyah was no intellectual man. He took part in the
War of 1812 as a warrior in spite of his physical handicap. During
that service, Sequoyah became more than ever convinced that the
Tsalagi needed writing. Unlike whites, Tsalagi warriors could
not write letters home or receive mail from loved ones. Orders
had to be committed to memory. Sequoyah began to concentrate more
and more on his "talking leaves."
At first, Sequoyah conceived of a pictographic language
(similar to Chinese) where words or concepts are symbolized with
graphics. He quickly realized that such a system would require
an unmanageable number of symbols. All the while he worked, Sequoyah
was harassed by those who did not approve of his work or appreciate
what it would mean to the Tsalagi people. Sequoyah then began
to experiment with a phonetic alphabet where symbols represented
individual sounds rather than concepts or things. This was much
more manageable. He set to work and discovered that there are
85 vowel and consonant sounds in the Tsalagi language. Sequoyah
assigned a character to each of these. This was the core of the
Tsalagi or Cherokee alphabet.
In 1821, Sequoyah demonstrated his alphabet before
Tsalagi leaders who were amazed and impressed by the accomplishment.
It was quickly adopted as the official written language of the
Because of the simplicity of Sequoyah's alphabet
system, many Tsalagi became literate in a short time. In 1827,
the Cherokee Phoenix - Tsa La Gi lehisanunhi - was established.
Funded by the Cherokee Council, this first Native American newspaper
was published in New Echota, Georgia. Elias Boudinot was the first
editor and Reverend Samuel Worcester, a missionary, was director.
On February 21, 1828, the first issue of the paper was printed.
In time, other works including the Holy Bible would be printed
in Sequoyah's syllabary.
Sequoyah moved westward shortly after the publication
of the Phoenix. He lived first in Arkansas and then in Oklahoma.
Sequoyah was already residing in Oklahoma when Chief John Ross
led the Tsalagi to the territory on the infamous Trail of Tears.
In 1842, Sequoyah was no longer a young man. Although
his age cannot be exactly determined, he was probably in his mid-sixties.
He set out to find a band of Tsalagi who had left traditional
tribal homelands in the southeastern United States to reunite
them with their nation. Sequoyah discovered them living in Mexico,
but the strain of the journey was too much. In 1843, Sequoyah
died in Mexico in the service of the Tsalagi people.
When Sequoyah created the Tsalagi alphabet, he settled
once and for all the old issue of the intellectual capacity of
Native Americans. Not only did he create a writing system from
scratch, he created one that was at once so simple and utilitarian
that virtually an entire nation became literate in slightly more
than a year. Sequoyah was a warrior and a statesman, but above
that, he was a thinker. It is only just that numerous elementary
and high schools across the nation are named in honor of this
brilliant Tsalagi leader.
Read about Sequoyah, Creator
of the Cherokee Alphabet
Read About the Cherokee Phoenix, National
Newspaper of the Cherokee Nation
Web Links Referencing the
Alphabet and Pronunciation Guide