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The Cherokee Alphabet

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Courtesy of Joan Sarah Touzet, creator of the Cherokee font

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 Tsalagi.

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

Other Web Links Referencing the Cherokee Alphabet:

Sequoyah's Talking Leaves
The Cherokee Alphabet and Pronunciation Guide
Cherokee Alphabet

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