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Sequoyah, Inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary
(Painting by Charles Bird King, 1828)
Thomas Bierowski
Lehigh University
A Cherokee man went to the chiefs and said "I want to make a book." They told him,
[The] Great Spirit first made a red and a white boy; to the red boy he gave a book and the white boy a bow and arrow, but the white boy came round the red boy, stole his book and went off, leaving him the bow and arrow, and therefore an Indian could not make a book. (Wilkins 138)
I. Sequoyah and the "Talking Leaves"---

    Sometime in 1776, in Tennessee, a son was born to the daughter of a Cherokee chief and her husband, a Virginia fur trader.  His name in English--"George Guess" or "Gist."  His Cherokee name was "Sikwoya," which means "pig's foot."  By 1809, however, as a 33-year-old silversmith, the unschooled and illiterate Sequoyah could not put his name to his work.  With the help of an influential Cherokee named Charles Hicks, Sequoyah learned to sign his name and claim his artifacts.  He began pondering the potential of a written language for both himself and his people.

    In 1813 and 1814, Sequoyah fought with the Cherokee Regiment against the Creek Redsticks. Here, again, he felt keenly the sting of illiteracy.  He and his fellow Cherokees were unable to correspond with family and friends, or interpret military orders, or record the events of the fighting like the white soldiers.  "[He] was fascinated by the white man's ability to put distinctive marks on a piece of paper . . . send it any distance, and have it understood by others.  Many tribesmen thought it was an art beyond the reach of Indians" (Priscilla Omega).  After his military service, Sequoyah set out in earnest pursuit of the "talking leaves."

II. "The Literall Advantage"---

    The lack of a written language (embedded in the story of the book and the bow) had long been exploited by the white man in his interactions with the native peoples of the New World.  In the early 17th century, Samuel Purchas saw the written language as a God-given skill he called "the literall advantage."  Whereas reason and speech marked the superiority of man over the animals, the "literall advantage" separated the culture of the written word from the culture of the oral tradition.  The separation was not without its value judgments. Purchas (as qtd. in Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions) wrote:

God hath added herein a further grace, that as men by the former exceed Beasts, so hereby one man may excell another; and amongst Men, some are accounted Civill, and more Sociable and religious, by the Use of letters and of Writing, which others wanting are esteemed Brutish, Savage, Barbarous. (10)
    The "literall advantage" became the wedge to separate the natives from their cultures, to marginalize them as barbarous obstacles in the path of the ascendent impulse of European culture. Greenblatt, summarizing Purchas's views, concludes that, thanks to the written word, the white man had "a past, a history, that those without access to letters necessarily lack[ed]" (10).

    An illiterate people, to this view, has no proof of any past culture.  Writing provides a sort of receipt or proof of purchase by which the native people might have rightfully claimed their culture in the face of its subjugation.  Literacy signified to the settler a perceived moral advantage over the native.  The recorded past of the settler, his tradition and culture, was used to fill the void, so perceived, left by native illiteracy.  To Samuel Purchas and his adherents, this dynamic was destined and decreed by God.

    In his book, The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov, elaborates on the pitfalls of illiteracy. Not only is the past lost to an illiterate people but the present as well.  In Todorov's view, the lack of a written language, resulted in

a fatal loss of the manipulative power in the present. The absence of writing determined the predominance of ritual over improvisation and cyclical time over linear time, characteristics that in turn led to disastrous misperceptions and miscalculations in the face of the conquistadores. . . . The culture that possessed writing could accurately represent to itself (and hence strategically manipulate) the culture without writing, but the reverse was not true. (Greenblatt 11)
    Once the written language was inscribed as the dominant paradigm in the New World, the illiterate native had neither the means of validating his past nor the tools to cope with the white man's ascendence in the present moment.  The achievements of the Native American, his world view and cosmology were all lost to him.  He was inferior as long as the leaves didn't talk for him.

    Sequoyah sought to take back the book stolen by the white boy in the myth and to fill the void that had so long kept his people out of the discourse.  His mission was to attain the "literall advantage" for the Cherokee people.

III. Sequoyah's Syllabary---

    Many Cherokee felt that the "talking leaves" were beyond the reach of their people.  Indeed, most Native Americans viewed the written language with suspicion as just another tool of the white man's duplicity, that his words always dried up and blew away like leaves.  Sequoyah thought differently. Sequoyah was different.  He wore a turban and smoked continuously from a long pipe.  He moved to a remote part of the Cherokee nation with his family and took to his project with a single mindedness that brooked no opposition.  Priscilla Omega writes:

[He] spent more and more time alone, contemplating the talking leaves. He built a cabin in the woods and isolated himself for a year. His friends and family became troubled by his strange "whim." He encountered both ridicule and fear. Former companions passed his home without entering, and some suspected him of practicing witchcraft. His wife, frustrated and angered by his actions, finally entered his cabin one night and threw all of his papers and hard work into the fireplace. Sequoyah saw this not as defeat, but an opportunity to begin again, in another direction.
    Peter Jones, in his History of the Ojebway Indians, writes that Sequoyah's "corn was left to weeds and he was pronounced a crazy man by the tribe.--His wife thought so too" (186).  In early 1821, twelve years after the notion of written language had taken him, this "madman" invented a tool by which, within one year, 98% percent of his nation became literate in their own language which had never before existed in written form.  He didn't steal the talking leaves back from the white man; he wrote his own and enabled the rest of the Cherokee to do the same.

    His early attempts to find a character for every word yielded to a phonetic scheme whereby he distilled the Cherokee language to 86 (then 85) syllables, each of which signified a sound.  Sequoyah adapted his Cherokee characters from the Greek and Roman alphabet.  This adaptation of the established symbolic order resulted in the Cherokee syllabary, an innovative and efficient means of expression and pedagogy.  Fewer Cherokee words were needed than English words to relate the same idea (as the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Indian newspaper would soon prove).  Thurman Wilkins comments on the practicality of Sequoyah's invention:

[Anyone] speaking Cherokee could read or write the language after a week of study. One was reading as soon as he had learned his ABC's: to read, all one had to do, was to say the names of the characters, one after the other as they stood on paper--just as by naming the letters x p d n c one pronounces the word "expediency" in a rough way. (140)
    Still, Sequoyah found little enthusiasm among his people for his syllabary early on.  The "talking leaves" were considered the white man's folly and a trick beyond an Indian's grasp.  Peter Jones, writing in 1861, relates Sequoyah's compelling demonstration to the contrary:
Having accomplished this he called together six of his neighbors, and said, "Now I can make a book." They did not believe him. To convince them, he asked each to make a speech, which he wrote down as they spoke, and then read to them, so that each one knew his own speech, and they then acknowledged he could make a book. (187-88)
    The syllabary enabled the Cherokee to record and preserve their oral heritage and, in a sense, claim that "literall advantage" that had been denied to them.  They could now leave their written mark on the current state of affairs.  They could record their interactions with the white man as their nation was being pulled toward wholesale relocation on "The Trail Where They Cried" (the direct Cherokee translation for the Trail of Tears, 1838).  In Todorov's terms, Sequoyah's syllabary enabled the Cherokee to join in the manipulation of the present reality, at least linguistically, on a more level playing field.  Sequoyah stole the talking leaves back from the white boy but rewrote the book in his own language.

    The syllabary made it possible, on February 21, 1821, for the first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix to be issued.  The newspaper was written, edited, and published by the Cherokee and featured columns written in both Cherokee and English in a side- by-side format.  The Phoenix enjoyed a vigorous life until it was silenced in the spring of 1831.  Seven years later, the Cherokee Nation was relocated on The Trail of Tears.  Legend has it that the lead-type characters that were modeled on Sequoyah's syllabary were taken from the newspaper office and thrown down a well.

    But Sequoyah opened a door that could never be shut again.  His syllabary has never undergone significant change, and the Cherokee language is still written today according to his design.  In recognition of his syllabary, a representative council of the Cherokee Nation awarded Sequoyah with a silver medal.  He remained active in the life and struggles of his people for the rest of his life, even when he moved with a small band of Cherokee to Mexico.  He died there in 1843.  His grave has never been found. The redwood trees of northern California were named after this eccentric Cherokee genius whose name means "pig's foot."  These towering trees stand as a living tribute to the diligent spirit and abiding intellectual achievement of a man who singlehandedly invented a written language for his people even though he could neither read nor write English.

IV. About the Portrait---

    Charles Bird King painted this portrait in 1828 when Sequoyah was in Washington D.C. to negotiate terms for the relocation of the Cherokee population.

V. Links---

-- Works Cited --

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Jones, Peter. History of the Ojebway Indians. London: A.W Bennet, 1861.

Omega, Priscilla. Sequoyah's Talking Leaves. The Earth Channel. Earth Channel Communications, LLC.  14  December, 1997.

North Georgia Resource Center. "Talking Leaves and the Cherokee Phoenix." Woodstock, GA: Golden Ink,  Inc. 14 December, 1997.

Viola, Herman J.  The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King.  New York: Smithsonian Institution and Doubleday, 1976.

Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1986.
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