When most of us hear the word Sequoyah today, we think of the huge, tall trees on the West Coast. However, as we observe November as National Native American Heritage Month, we learn that these great trees were named to honor a poor, crippled, uneducated and ridiculed half-breed Cherokee Indian who overcame insurmountable odds to bring a gift to his people that was so great that it is unrivaled in all human history.
Sequoyah invented the Cherokee’s written alphabet, condensing their spoken language into 86 symbols, each representing a unique sound or syllable of Cherokee speech — the only known case when an illiterate person invented a written language.
As Sam Houston told Sequoyah, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee.”
Sequoyah was born in the late 1760s near the Cherokee village of Tushkeegee on the Tennessee River near old Fort Loudoun in Tennessee. His mother was Cherokee and his father, Nathanial Gist (Guess or Guest) was an English fur trader. Sequoyah was raised in the old ways of the Cherokee and became a trapper and fur trader going by the name his father had given him, George Gist.
As a result of an early hunting accident, he was given the name Sequoyah, which means “pig's foot” in Cherokee. The Cherokee Advocate (June 26, 1845), however, gave the following explanation for his lameness: “He was the victim of hydroarthritic trouble of the knee joint, commonly called 'white swelling'; and this affliction caused a lameness that characterized him during life.”
Because of his lameness, he worked for many years as a trader. He also later became a silversmith as well as a blacksmith. Making his own tools, such as hammers and drills, he also constructed his own bellows and forge. After being permanently crippled, he developed a talent for craftsmanship, making silver ornaments and blacksmithing.
He never learned to read or write English, but while in Georgia he became captivated by the white man's ability to communicate by making marks on paper and reading from books, or “talking leaves” as he called them.
In approximately 1809, Sequoyah and some friends were talking in his blacksmith shop, and the conversation led to a discussion regarding the non-Indian method of communicating through writing. Many thought that it was some sort of witchcraft, but Sequoyah understood that the writing stood for words, and he wanted the same thing for his people. He pondered devising a way for the Cherokee to be able to do the same thing, although many of those around him were skeptical.
During the War of 1812, Sequoyah became convinced he was on the right path. Unlike white soldiers, he did not write letters home and could not read military orders. Therefore, after the war, Sequoyah began to concentrate on creating symbols that would make words.
He and his daughter, Ayoka, played games using the symbols. He became obsessed with developing a new Cherokee alphabet writing system because he knew it would help his people. Sequoyah became a recluse in his obsession to perfect the writing system, and he endured constant ridicule by friends and even family members, who said he was insane or practicing witchcraft.
Sequoyah therefore began listening more intently to the individual sounds that made up the words of his native language. After a long study, he realized that there were 86 individual syllables, which were used to make up the many words of the Cherokee language.
Although the system was foolproof and easy to learn, Sequoyah and his daughter were charged with and scheduled to be executed for witchcraft, and were brought before George Lowery, their town chief, for trial. Due to a Cherokee law enacted in 1811, it was mandated to have a civil trial before an execution was allowed to take place. Lowery brought in a group of warriors to judge what was termed a “sorcery trial.” For evidence of the literacy claims, the warriors separated Sequoyah and his daughter to have them send written messages between each other until the warrior jurors were finally convinced that the symbols on paper really represented talking.
At the end of the trial, the warriors asked Sequoyah to teach them this new skill. Within a week, all were able to read and write their own language. The warriors are known historically as a fierce group of Cherokees and with their protection and patronage, literacy spread quickly throughout the Cherokee Nation.
Within a very few months, a large part of the Nation had achieved literacy, a gift that benefited not only the teachers and missionaries, but that helped preserve history, culture and spiritual practices. Dr. Samuel Worcester urged that type and a press be furnished to his mission so that scriptures could be translated into the native language, and the press evolved into a business which produced a newspaper (The Cherokee Phoenix), hymn books, hand bills and most other printing needs.
Between the years of 1809 and 1821, then, Sequoyah accomplished a feat that no other person in history has done single-handedly. Through the development of the Cherokee syllabary, he brought his people literacy, the gift of communicating through long distances and the ages, and the ability to communicate and preserve their traditions through writings like the white man.
Today, Cherokee is the second most widely used Native American lan-guage, spoken by an estimated 20,000 Cherokee in northeastern Okla-homa and another 5,000 near the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. It is also one of the few American Indian languages to be thriving and growing.