The Man Who Taught a Nation to Read

First published 12 November 2641
by Dr. Johnny Blue Jacket
Temporal Anthropologist with the University of Oklahoma
Specializing in the Native Peoples of southeastern United States

Oh-seh-oh! One of the greatest honors and joys of being a temporal anthropologist is being able to meet one of your childhood heroes. Every Cherokee has heard the name Sequoyah, whose fame in his own lifetime reached beyond the United States. Sequoyah was not named for the giant redwoods--they were named for him. Sequoyah is the only man in recorded history to devise a working alphabet for an non-literate culture, when he himself could not read or write any language.

Sequoyah with his alphabet
Sequoyah’s early life is surrounded by so much speculation that even he isn’t sure of the details. He was born in Tennessee around 1770 to a Cherokee woman named Wuteh. His father was named either Gist or Guess and we are not sure if he was Cherokee, English, German, or Scots. His father either left or died before Sequoyah was born, so he never knew his father. His mother never remarried and raised her only child while running a general store and small farm.

Sequoyah became lame at a young age and found hunting and farming too difficult. Instead he learned silversmithing and became so good, people traveled from miles away to buy his wares. Some of his customers were whites. From them he learned of a strange thing called “writing.” Since Cherokee did not have a word for writing, Sequoyah called them “talking leaves.” Unfortunately the English alphabet could not be used for Cherokee which was too different. The only way for a Cherokee to learn reading and writing was to learn English first.

Sequoyah saw no reason that the Cherokees could not have their own “talking leaves.” His friends and family told him he was crazy or he was meddling with witchcraft. Many thought the whites writing was a form of sorcery. Undaunted Sequoyah sat down and started creating a symbol for each word. After a year of sitting around doodling on bark and neglecting his crops and business, his frustrated wife tossed all his work in the fire and told him to quit this black magic nonsense. Sequoyah took his young daughter Ayokeh by the hand and left.

Instead of giving up, Sequoyah realized he had been on the wrong track anyway. A symbol for every word would be too difficult to learn. He listened to people and soon came to realize there were only 86 syllables in the Cherokee language so he only needed 86 symbols. He used the English alphabet for inspiration, stealing some of the letters, modifying others to be more attractive. Cherokee letters had no relationship to the English letters, having whatever sound Sequoyah attached them to.

No one wanted to learn this sorcery, so Sequoyah taught it to his six-year-old girl, Ayokeh. He went to the Cherokee Tribal Council to announce his new system of writing. They doubted him so he had Ayokeh leave the room so she couldn’t hear. The council dictated some words to Sequoyah who wrote them down in his new alphabet. Then they had his daughter come back. When she read exactly what they had dictated, they knew that Sequoyah was not crazy. In 1825 the Cherokee Nation officially adopted his system of writing.

The Cherokee alphabet with the syllable sound beside it
Now convinced the alphabet was neither black magic or a joke, people came to Sequoyah offering to pay him to teach them to read and write, too. Sequoyah refused to take their money. He meant the alphabet to be available to all and some Cherokees were to poor to pay, and too proud to accept charity if he taught them for free. So he taught everyone free. Even a slow student could learn the alphabet in a few weeks. Since every word was spelt the way it sounded, once you learned the alphabet, you could read and write.

The system was so simple that once learned the student could become a teacher to his own friends and family. Within a few years nearly all Cherokees could read and write. Their literacy rate became far higher than their white neighbors.

The Cherokees were clamoring for something to read. The special printing press was built to print with the new letters. A newspaper called The Phoenix was started. It was printed in both Cherokee and English to show the white this was not just gibberish. Subscriptions were sent as far away as Europe, as linguistic experts marveled at Sequoyah’s genius. The Bible has been printed in Cherokee. Someone even wrote a novel. Adventurous Cherokees will travel far away just so they can write letters back home.

I met Sequoyah sitting in front of his cabin in Indian Territory in 1831. He was smoking a clay pipe and wore a turban-like scarf that is fashionable among the Cherokees now. Sequoyah was a quiet, humble man. However he is justifiably proud of his accomplishment. The Cherokees Council back east had awarded him a silver medal for his gift to his people. He was wearing it when I found him. I’m told he never takes it off.

The forced removal of the Cherokees from their homelands is still six years away. Sequoya, as well as many other Cherokees, realized they were doomed and traveled east to what would become Arkansas and Oklahoma as early as 1817. Sequoya moved to Arkansaw Territory in 1825 and then to Indian Territory two years ago.

I asked Sequoyah about his alphabet. He said he is currently working on one that all the tribes can use. He has traveled as far as Arizona speaking with various native nations. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the various languages were all too different for his alphabet to work for everyone. I think he was already discovering that. However he will inspire others to create their own systems of writing to preserve their languages.

Sequoyah told me he feared the government would force his people back east to come out west. He said the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi has already begun. John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokees, has been using his law degree to fight it, but Sequoyah said he feared the worse. The whites want the fertile farmlands of the Five Civilized Tribes, so called because they are peaceful farmers. He didn’t think it was fair, but what can one do?

The Trail of Tears
the forced removal of the Cherokees where thousands died
Sequoyah spoke of his dream to reunite the Cherokee people. They are now scattered in the old territory in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas as well as Alabama, Arkansaw Territory and Indian Territory. He had hear rumors that some even migrated to Mexico to get away from the U.S. Government.

In the next decade an elderly Sequoyah will pursue that dream with a expedition into Mexico to find the lost Cherokees. He will die in the pursuit and be buried by the party in an unmarked grave. Several have been found reporting to be the site. I secretly did a DNA scan of Sequoyah to see if we can solve that mystery.

I thanked Sequoyah for teaching our people how to read and write. I told him he was a great honor to meet him. He just nodded and said he was glad to meet me, too.