Sequoyah – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Sequoyah, or Sequoia (both spellings were given by missionaries, but in Cherokee the name is closer to Sikwayi or Sogwali), also called George Gist or George Guess, was the legendary creator of the Cherokee syllabary.
Born in a village in the mountains of Tennessee, he resettled in Arkansas when the tribal lands along the Little Tennessee River were ceded to whites in the 1790s. In 1829 he settled in Indian Territory , in present-day Oklahoma. He died in Texas or Mexico while trying to contact other Cherokees who had drifted further away from the encroaching whites. Sequoyah only visited northwest Georgia sporadically, when he passed by or returned to advise the eastern Cherokees on conditions in the West. He also traveled to teach the syllabary and encourage its use among remote members of his tribe.
From the 1820s, when the syllabary became well known, until the 1960s, published accounts agreed that Sequoyah was the son of a Cherokee mother and a white father, almost certainly Nathaniel Gist, a commissioned officer in the Continental Army and emissary of George Washington. Sequoyah nonetheless appeared to be a pure-blooded Indian who remained true to the traditions of his people, never adopting white dress, religion, or other customs. In particular, he spoke no language other than Cherokee.
Impressed by white people‘s ability to communicate remotely through writing, Sequoyah invented a system of eighty-four to eighty-six characters that represented syllables in spoken Cherokee (so it’s a syllabary, not a alphabet). Completed in 1821, the syllabary was quickly adopted by large numbers of Cherokees, making Sequoyah the only member of an illiterate group in human history to single-handedly devise a successful writing system. This view is supported by first-hand accounts from missionaries to the Cherokees, government agents and journalists who have interviewed Sequoyah (or a man claiming to be Sequoyah) and statements from some people claiming to be descendants of Sequoyah . It has been the basis for awards given by the Cherokee Nation, the US Congress and various states. There are monuments, parks, and schools named after Sequoyah in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and other states. The giant sequoia, found in California, is named after him.
In 1971 Traveler Bird, claiming to be a direct descendant of Sequoyah, published the book Tell Them They’re Lying: The Sequoyah Myth, which postulates a very different tradition. According to Bird, Sequoyah was indeed the full-blooded Native American he appeared to be, who throughout his life opposed the subjugation and assimilation of his people into white culture. He was also a scribe, trained in a Cherokee writing system that predated white contact, and during his life learned to speak English, Spanish, and other languages. Sequoyah politics and the syllabary were threats to those who portrayed Native American culture as primitive, including missionaries who sought to Christianize the Indians, teach them English, and settle them in towns and farms inspired by the white civilization, as well as politicians and military leaders who wanted to expropriate their lands. Assimilation Cherokees accused Sequoyah of witchcraft, branded and mutilated him, and forged his name on treaties abandoning tribal lands, while missionaries, unable to suppress the syllabary, fabricated the story of his miraculous creation. Sequoyah’s images are actually of another illiterate Cherokee, Bird says, and interviews with him never included handwriting demonstrations. Bird’s book has generated controversy because it challenges previously accepted research without providing written evidence, but it has also gained a place and some credibility in academic discourse.
It is a fact that the syllabary has been used to print certain articles in the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, published in New Echota, Georgia (then the capital of the eastern Cherokees), from 1828 to 1834. The appearance of the newspaper, as well as the organized government of the Cherokee nation, including the tribal council and the supreme court, infuriated the state of Georgia, which had an agreement with the US government (the Compact of 1802) to expel Native Americans. When the Cherokees were removed, the buildings and the printing press were destroyed, and the type of the syllabary was thrown into a well which was then sealed. Excavations in the 1950s led to partial restoration, and the New Echota State Historic Site opened near Calhoun in 1962.