There are lots of things in life that we take for granted. We are so used to them being there that we forget how important they really are. Sometimes, we only see their value in their absence. One of which is the written word.
As you are reading this post, we’re using written words to convey messages and provide information. Just imagine how our life would be without written words. How would we pass down knowledge from one generation to the other. Would spoken stories passed down to one another be as reliable as a written one directly from the source?
For generations, the Cherokee Indians have passed down their knowledge to the next generation without the written word. However, one man has changed the Cherokee history and that man is named Sequoyah. In a previous post, we’ve told you about the mysterious Nikwasi Mound, now let’s tell you the story of Sequoyah.
Who Is Sequoyah?
In the 1770’s Sequoyah was born in Tuskegee, Tennessee. He was called “The Lame One” because he had an early learning disability. He was also half Indian and half white. During his early years, it was a challenge for him to find his identity.
Sequoyah joined the American army in the war of 1812 against the Creek Redsticks and the British. Those who were members of the Creek tribe who pledge their allegiance with the British were called the “Redsticks”. It was there that he got exposed to the different documents that the white soldiers had. He was very fascinated with them as he doesn’t have any idea about reading or writing.
The American soldiers would receive letters from their wives and other family members so they can also know what’s happening at home. Some of the Cherokees, who knew English, were also able to receive such letters. However, most of them didn’t.
When the war ended he went back to Tennessee. It was then when he had one goal in mind and that is to help his fellow Cherokee Indians write and read in their own language. He tried to talk with the tribal leaders and discuss his idea. However, just like other Native Americans at that time, they didn’t think highly of his idea and they wanted to stick to their tradition.
Challenges Are No Match For A Determined Soul
Even if Sequoya was turned down and ridiculed, his spirits are still high. He still wants to create a written language for the Cherokee. Working alone, he tried to turn the Cherokee language into written form.
For his first try, he tried different symbols for each word. He did it for months but he just ended up with thousands of symbols and there are still more words to create symbols for. He scrapped that idea and focused on using sound. However, this also proved to be impractical because there are also lots of sounds.
The impressive thing about Sequoyah was that he still strived to create a written language even if he didn’t receive support. In fact, he was also ridiculed by his fellow tribesmen. This went on for nine years. He was also labeled as a poor provider because he didn’t spend a lot of time in the farmland. He and his wife would argue and he moved out and lived in a small cabin to continue with his goal.
Three more years passed before he figured out dividing the words into syllables. His daughter helped him and now they were able to reduce the Cherokee language into 86 syllables. It was in 1821 when he finally created the Cherokee alphabet.
He used the English letters for the Cherokee alphabet by copying them from a newspaper, even if he can’t read them. He also used other Greek letters and added his own designs. However, the alphabet he created wasn’t exactly an alphabet but a syllabary because the symbols stand for combinations of sounds and he had a lot.
The Skeptical Cherokees
Another main problem that Sequoyah has was his fellow skeptic Cherokee Indians. He started by teaching his syllabary to those in Arkansas. They then wrote a letter to their friends in the east of Mississippi. Then he brought back the letters to Tennessee and read it. Everyone was surprised that he was able to convey a message from Arkansas and spoke it precisely as he read the letter.
However, this still didn’t change the mind of the Cherokee Indians. He still needed to convince them and he did it with the help of his 12-year-old daughter. He asked the council to create a message for him while he stayed outside and his daughter wrote it down. Once he entered and read the message, the councilmen were in awe.
That initiated the start. The councilmen learned the system and taught it to their families. They did this in just a few weeks’ time. Sequoyah even said that he can teach the system to others in just a week. The system spread as someone who knows the system would teach it to another. In just 3 months, almost all of the Cherokee Indians already know the written system.
The system was now taught in the schools that the Cherokee Nation set-up for their children. A printing press that uses Cherokee characters was also constructed. In 1828. There were now printed publications, Bibles, magazines and hymn books that are printed using Cherokee characters.
From Being Ridiculed To Being Honored
Sequoyah, who was previously ridiculed, was now honored. He was a member of the Arkansas treaty delegation and there was even a medal struck in his honor. Charles Bird King even painted his portrait.
However, the white Americans were still trying to get the lands of the Native Americans. Sequoyah moved before the Cherokee removal. He was also awarded by the Cherokee nation a unique pension of having the right to develop and sell salt that he could get from the mineral spring close to his home. This just proves how much the Native Americans respected Sequoyah’s contribution.
He still continued to teach his alphabet to anyone who would want to learn them. At his old age, they moved to Mexico because he wanted to study the language of the Indians there. However, he didn’t meet any Mexican Indians and died in 1843. He has an unmarked grave that hasn’t been found. However, you can still visit his cabin at Sallisaw. There is a stone museum built around it.