English 47


Not many people can claim to have invented an alphabet – but that’s exactly what Sequoyah, one of the most famous members of the Cherokee tribe1 accomplished. Some oral historians contend that the written Cherokee language is therefore2 much older; however, even if such a written language had existed, it was lost until Sequoyah came along. His extraordinary achievement marks the only known instance of an individual creating a totally new and original3 system of writing.

Born in the 1770s in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee, Sequoyah was also known by his English name, George Gist or Guess. Sequoyah, reared in the old tribal ways and customs, became a hunter and fur trader.4 He was also a skilled silver craftsman whom5 never learned to speak, write, or read English. However, he was always fascinated by the ability to communicate by making distinctive marks on paper. What some members6 of his tribe referred to as “talking leaves.”

Handicapped from a hunting accident and therefore having more time for study, Sequoyah set about in the devising of7 his own system of communication in 1809. He devoted the next dozen years to his task. Despite accusations that he was insane or practicing witchcraft, Sequoyah became obsessed with his work on the Cherokee language. [8]

Ultimately, Sequoyah determined the Cherokee language was made up of particular clusters of sounds and combinations of vowels and consonants. The eighty-five characters in the syllabary represents9 all the possible combinations of these sounds. In 1812, Sequoyah’s demonstration of the system before a gathering of astonished tribal leaders was so dramatically convincing that it promptly led to official approval of the syllabary.10

Within several months, a substantial number of people in the Cherokee Nation were able reportedly11 to read and write in their own language. Many members of the tribe already being able12 to read and write in English, so13 the syllabary made it possible for virtually all the members of the Cherokee Nation, young and old, to master one’s14 language in a relatively short period of time.

In 1827, the Cherokee council approved funding for the establishment of a national newspaper. Early the following year, the hand press was shipped by water from Boston and brought 200 miles overland to the capital of the Cherokee Nation, New Echota. The inaugural issue, “Tsa la gi Tsu lehisanunhi” or “Cherokee Phoenix,” printed in both Cherokee and English, appeared on February 21, 1828. [15]