The Indian tribes in the United States had a spoken language, but in the early years they had no real need for a written language, other than hieroglyphics. At some point, a young Cherokee man named Sequoyah noticed something about the men in Andrew Jackson’s platoon, while he and some other Cherokee men were volunteering in the fight against the British in the War of 1812. In dealing with the Anglo soldiers and settlers, Sequoyah became intrigued by their “talking leaves” or printed books. Sequoyah realized that somehow the “talking leaves” recorded human speech. In a brilliant leap of logic, Sequoyah comprehended the basic nature of symbolic representation of sounds and in 1809 he began working on a similar system for the Cherokee language. Little did Sequoyah know that his work would change things, and in fact, change life for the Cherokee people. Still, it was not without it’s downside. Sequoyah was ridiculed and misunderstood by most of the Cherokee. Nevertheless, he made slow progress until he came up with the idea of representing each syllable in the language with a separate written character. Finally, he perfected his syllabary of 86 characters, a system that could be mastered in less than week. After obtaining the official endorsement of the Cherokee leadership, Sequoyah’s invention was soon adopted throughout the Cherokee nation.
Finally, it was time for the next step. The General Council of the Cherokee Nation decided to purchase a printing press. Their goal was to produce a newspaper in the Cherokee language. When the Cherokee-language printing press arrived on this day, February 21, 1828, the lead type was based on Sequoyah’s syllabary. Within months, the first Indian language newspaper in history appeared in New Echota, Georgia. It was called the Cherokee Phoenix. The Cherokee tribe was one of what the Americans called the “five civilized tribes” and they were native to the American Southeast. The Cherokee had long ago decided to embrace the United States’ program of “civilizing” Indians in the years after the Revolutionary War. In the minds of Americans, Sequoyah’s syllabary showed the Cherokee desire to fit into their dominant Anglo world. The Cherokee used their new press to print a bilingual version of the republican constitution. They also took many other steps to assimilate Anglo culture and practice while still preserving some aspects of their traditional language and beliefs. The press worked well, but would have been useless had it not been for the extraordinary work of Sequoyah.
Sequoyah was born about 1770 in Tuskegee, Cherokee Nation, near present day Knoxville, Tennessee. He died August 1843 at about 72 or 73, in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His name in English is George Gist or George Guess, which I find to be…well, crazy. Why was it necessary to butcher his name. Sequoyah was a Cherokee silversmith by trade, but his biggest claim to fame was the creation of written Cherokee. In 1821, when he completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, he successfully made reading and writing in Cherokee possible. This was one of the very few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system. After seeing its worth, the people of the Cherokee Nation rapidly began to use his syllabary and officially adopted it in 1825. Their literacy rate quickly surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers. In recognition of his service, the Cherokee Nation voted Sequoyah an annual allowance in 1841. He died two years later on a trip to San Fernando, seeking Cherokee to return to Oklahoma with him. The giant California redwood tree, Sequoia, was named after him.