by Jo Carol Hebert
Who Are the Cherokees?
They called themselves ‘Ani-yun-wiya’, the Principal People. They are the ‘indigenous’ peoples of the North American Southeast regions. The dark and quiet woodlands of Georgia, the Carolinas, and East Tennessee were their sacred places. They are the ‘Cherokees’, (chair-uh-kees) meaning, ’speakers of another language.’ In time, one of their own would give them a way to become ‘writers of another language’.
Sequoyah: Balancing Two Worlds
Sequoyah (si-kwoi-uh) was born in 1770 in a region near the Tennessee River. He grew up in the tribal culture of the Cherokees. His mother, Wut-teh, was related to several Cherokee Chiefs.
Sequoyah was a warrior and hunter. He was brave and skilled in the ways of protecting his tribe. He knew the signs of the changing of the seasons. He listened to the sounds of nature: the warning snap of a twig, the sound of the wind breathing through the trees. This perception would later help him give his people’ the gift of the written word’.
His mother ran a trading post. Here, he watched and learned from the many different people that came through the local store. He heard different languages and saw the different ways people came and went.
My Name is Sequoyah
Along with other Native Americans, Sequoyah served as a soldier in the U.S. Army for a year.
He hunted and traded furs for the military. During this time, he noticed the white troops used ‘talking leaves’ (the printed word) to communicate. He was awed at the power they had to understand military instructions from these ‘leaves’. He marveled that they could write letters to loved ones. He watched them scribble marks in journals. He could not write his own name.
Home Again, But Not the Same
After Sequoyah returned home, he was in a hunting accident that made it hard for him to work in the old ways. He began crafting silver jewelry to sell in the trading post. But while his hands were busy making beautiful silver ornaments, his mind was busy thinking of a way for Cherokees to write their name, like in the ‘talking leaves’.
ABC’s – The Cherokee Way
Sequoyah began inventing a Cherokee kind of alphabet and writing system. First, he tried to make a symbol for every word spoken. Then he tried using syllable pictures for meanings. He had to give up on these tiresome methods. He began to listen. He listened to the voices of his people. He listened to the soft sounds spoken from their lips. He copied the sounds on paper in a beautiful script that he created. He made one symbol for every syllable (sound) in the Cherokee language.
At first, his people were afraid of the strange marks. They thought it was from an evil spirit. But, within twelve years, he had 86 symbols for syllables of a Cherokee alphabet that is still used today. (The Cherokee Nation now uses 85 of the original Sequoyah alphabet). He first taught his brother, then his daughter, A-Yo-Ka. The new alphabet was easy to learn. Soon, most of his Cherokee people could write in their own language.
Sequoyah Lives in History
- 1825 – Leaders of the Cherokee people accept the Sequoyah Alphabet.
- 1828 – The Cherokee Phoenix newspaper is in business in the Cherokee language.
- 1829 – Sequoya goes to Washington, D.C. with a Cherokee group to negotiate land.
- 1838 – Sequoyah walks the ‘Trail of Tears’ that sadly removed his people from their cherished homelands.
- 1843 – Dies from a possible illness near San Fernando, Mexico at the age of 72.
The Rest of the Story
First and always, Sequoyah was interested in the welfare of his people. He spent the last years of his life in a quest for a group of Cherokees in Mexico.
Now recognized for his contributions to Cherokees, the Americas, and the world, Sequoyah is honored in many ways, including:
- The giant redwood trees of California are called ‘Sequoias’, by his name.
- Sequoia National Park is also named to honor him.
- A bronze statue of Sequoyah is in Washington, D.C.
- A bronze panel of Sequoyah is by The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
- The Sequoyah Memorial is in front of the Cherokee Museum in North Carolina.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
Today, the Cherokees have a tribal government in Oklahoma. They are the largest tribe of Native Americans in the United States with 380,000 tribal citizens around the world. Of these, 141,000 live in Northeast Oklahoma. Their Mission Statement: “to preserve and promote Cherokee cultures, language, and values; and improve the quality of life for the next seven generations of Cherokee citizens.”
This is a goal that Sequoyah would embrace. In the ‘voice’ of his Cherokee ancestors, he would speak in agreement. And, he would write his advice and consent in the ‘talking leaves’ of his beloved people: