“Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee.” -Sam Houston
Born in Tuskogee, Tennessee in 1776, Sequoyah, also known as George Gist or George Guess, was a silversmith and blacksmith by trade. His mother was full blood Cherokee Indian and his father was a mixed blood fur trapper. “He was the victim of hydro-arthritic trouble of the knee joint, commonly called ‘white swelling’; and this affliction caused a lameness that characterized him during life.” (The Cherokee Advocate, June 26, 1845). His entire life would change one day when a wealthy white man taught him how to write his name so he could sign his work. This inspired Sequoyah to create a common language and alphabet for his people.
Upon enlisting to fight in the War of 1812 with many notable figures including General Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. He was one of many Cherokee Indians to assist the United States in battle. Sequoyah served 147 consecutive days in the Cherokee Regiment before being discharged in 1814 During his time fighting in war, he realized he was unable to communicate with his family back home due to his illiteracy. This was common among the native people primarily due to the fact that they often adhered close to their clans and families.
After returning from war, Sequoyah dedicated his time to formulating a system of writing for the Cherokee people. He began by trying to assign one symbol for each sound, then he changed his approach to dedicating one symbol for every syllable in the language. This is known as a “syllabary” style of writing. The only known syllabary in existence today is Japanese that dates back 5.A.D. He focused on designing his pictographs “talking leaves” in hopes of being able to utilize them in print.
In 1821 (12 years working on the syllabary), the Cherokee Nation adopted the syllabary as their single form of writing their language. Within months of instating the symbols, thousands of Cherokee Indians became literate. Four years later, the Bible and Christian hymns were translated into the Cherokee language.
In 1828, the Cherokee Indians published their own newspaper called: “The Cherokee Phoenix.” The first native american newspaper in existence and a milestone for the Cherokee Indians. Through the development of the written word, the Cherokee were able to construct their own constitution, treaties and empower their people.
For Cherokee Indians, they saw the value and the power that the Anglo-Americans imposed on the native people and they modeled their structure of drafting and implementing documents from their knowledge. “The Cherokee Phoenix” is still in existence today and available online, with only a short hiatus in printing during the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee Translator (click to translate English into Cherokee)
You can translate your own words and phrases complete with the original “Talking Leaves” developed by Sequoyah.