Famous Native Americans: Sequoyah Part 1

About the famous Native American Sequoyah, his biography and place in United States history and how he invented an alphabet.

SEQUOYAH (c. 1770-1843). Inventor of an alphabet.

While living in the Cherokee territory of Tennessee, young Sequoyah and his companions would argue as to whether the mysterious power of "the talking leaf" was a gift from the Great Spirit to the white man, or the white man's own discovery.

Sequoyah's companions had seen white men with books and had seen them write messages on paper. They were convinced that this form of communication was just another of those blessings that the Great Spirit had seen fit to bestow upon the white man but not upon the red. But Sequoyah strenuously maintained the opposite: that the Great Spirit had had nothing to do with it; and that the white man had himself invented "the talking leaf." It was an argument that remained fixed in his mind and continued to haunt him with its possibilities.

Sequoyah was born about 1770, most probably the son of a white trader named Nathaniel Gist. Nobody dwelt much on these matters of little significance. The important facts were that his mother was a member of the family of the Emperor Moytoy and the legendary warrior-king Oconostota; that Sequoyah was born in the Indian village of Taskigi (later Tuskegee), just 5 mi. from the sacred town of Echota; and that he was a Cherokee. He became a craftsman in silverwork, an accomplished storyteller, and a happy participant in the Green Corn Dances, footraces, and ball games. And, along with his entire tribe, he was illiterate.

Sequoyah's life might have continued without incident had not a hunting accident left him partially crippled. As a result, he had more leisure and more opportunity to ponder the idea that the red man also might come to possess the secret of "the talking leaf." He began to wander off into the woods and spend hours there alone, avoiding everyone, playing like a child with pieces of wood or making odd little marks with one stone on another. His wife and friends offered no encouragement, or even sympathy, for they were convinced that he was either going mad or in communication with the spirits. Months became years, and lack of sympathy became ridicule and contempt. But Sequoyah was obsessed with his dream.

At 1st, Sequoyah tried to give every word a separate character, but eventually he realized the futility of such an approach and settled on assigning a character to each sound. When his friends and neighbors talked, he no longer heard what they siad but listened to the sounds, trying to separate them and trying to identify any new sound that he might theretofore have missed. What he eventually achieved was not so much an alphabet as a syllabary--86 characters representing all the sounds of spoken Cherokee--which when combined produced a written language of remarkable simplicity and effectiveness. It had taken 12 years.

There are many stories of how Sequoyah presented his "alphabet" to his doubting people and overcame their reluctance to try it. According to one legend, there was actually a great demonstration before the chiefs during which his little daughter read aloud what the chiefs had privately told him to write on a paper and thus in a single moment amazed and convinced everyone. So beautifully simple and precise was Sequoyah's alphabet that it could be learned in a few days. Moreover, whoever learned, taught; until suddenly a most remarkable thing had happened. Within a matter of months, a population that had been almost entirely illiterate suddenly became almost entirely literate! And the lame little man who had been ridiculed by his people was now respected, revered, regarded as almost superhuman and a great benefactor.

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