It is said that in ancient times, when writing first began, a man named Moses made marks on a stone. I can agree with you by what name
to call those marks and that will be writing and can be understood."
When Europeans first landed in North America, they found an industrious race of
warrior people called the 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 Sequoya.
Few questioned the abilities of Native Americans as warriors. And 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
Most agree that Sequoyah was born sometime in the 1770s
in the Tsalagi village of Tuskegee on the
Tennessee. His mother, Wurerth, belonged to the Paint Clan.
Some argue that Sequoyah's father was a white man from
Virgina 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
by portrayed as a half-blood to give more credence to his alphabet. (Also read
this on the subject.
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 far more efficiently 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 manque. 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 commited to memory. Sequoyah began to concentrate more
and more on his "talking leaves."
The Cherokee Alphabet
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
All the while he worked, Sequoyah was harrassed
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
Sequoyah assigned a character to each of these. This was the core of the Tsalagi or Cherokee alphabet.
Proposal and Accceptance
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.
Tsa La Gi Tsu lehisanunhi--Cherokee Phoenix
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 syllabry.
Sequoyah Moves Westward
Sequoyah moved westward shortly after the publication of the Phoenix.
He lived first in Arkansas and then Oklahoma. Sequoyah was already resident in
Oklahoma when Chief John Ross led the Tsalagi to the terriotry 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-sixities. He set out to find a band of Tsalagi who had left the 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.
- Sequoyah as seen by contemporary Tsalagi.
Other Tsalagi Sites
- Don't miss Jordan Dill's History of the Cherokee.
Great Native American Leaders site.
This page is dedicated to Tsali of the Tsalagi, a good friend whose heart beats red.