Sequoyah and the Cherokee Alphabet
Probably born handicapped, and thus the name Sequoyah (Sikwo-yi is Cherokee for "pig's foot"), Sequoyah fled Tennessee as a youth because of the encroachment of whites. He initially moved to Georgia, where he acquired skills working with silver. While in the state, a man who purchased one of his works suggested that he sign his work, like the white silversmiths had begun to do. Sequoyah considered the idea and since he did not know how to write he visited Charles Hicks, a wealthy farmer in the area who wrote English. Hicks showed Sequoyah how to spell his name, writing the letters on a piece of paper. Sequoyah began to toy with the idea of a Cherokee writing system that year (1809).
He moved to Willstown, Alabama, and enlisted in the Cherokee Regiment, fighting in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which effectively ended the war against the Creek Redsticks. During the war, he became convinced of the necessity of literacy for his people. He and other Cherokees were unable to write letters home, read military orders, or record events as they occurred.
After the war, he began in earnest to create a writing system. Using a phonetic system, where each sound made in speech was represented by a symbol, he created the "Talking Leaves", 85 letters that make up the Cherokee syllabary (he would later add another symbol, making the total 86). His little girl Ayoka easily learned this method of communication. He demonstrated his syllabary to his cousin, George Lowrey by sending Ayoka outside the house, then asking Lowrey to answer a question. Sequoyah wrote the answer down on a piece of paper, then had Ayoka read the answer to Lowrey. Lowrey encouraged Sequoyah to demonstrate the syllabary in public. A short time later in a Cherokee Court in Chattooga, he read an argument about a boundary line from a sheet of paper. Word spread quickly of Sequoyah's invention. In 1821, 12 years after the original idea, the Cherokee Nation adopted Sequoyah's alphabet as their own. Within months thousands of Cherokee became literate.
The crippled warrior moved west to Arkansas. Mining and selling salt for money he was active in politics. In 1824 the National Council at New Echota struck a silver medal in his honor. Later, publication began on the first Native American newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix in the same town. The painting of Sequoyah was made in 1828 on a trip to Washington to negotiate terms for removal from Arkansas to Oklahoma. Leaving the state in 1829, he had lived in Oklahoma for 10 years when Principal Chief John Ross led North Georgia Cherokee on the "Trail of Tears" to the state.
He died in Mexico (now Texas) in 1843 after possibly visiting family in a band of Chickamauga Cherokee who had moved there earlier.
Perhaps the most eloquent praise paid to Sequoyah was by H.A. Scomp, member of Emory College faculty, when he said "...perhaps the most remarkable man who has ever lived on Georgia soil was neither a politician, nor a soldier, nor an ecclesiastic, nor a scholar, but merely a Cherokee Indian of mixed blood. And strange to say, this Indian acquired permanent fame, neither expecting or seeking it."
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