Cherokee language


They called him Sequoyah. And, this great Cherokee Indian gave his people a gift that will endure forever. He gave them a writing system, which removed the shackles of illiteracy from the Cherokee People - so that the greatness of the Cherokee Nation will live forever.

Sequoyah, also spelled Sequoya, was born between 1760 and 1776, in the Cherokee village of Tuskeegee on the Tennessee River. His name Si-kwo-yi is Cherokee for "pig's foot," which leads many to believe that he was born with a ‘club foot’, or seriously injured later in life. Sequoyah was a mixed-blood Cherokee. His mother, Wu-reth or Wut-teh, was a member of the Paint Clan, daughter of a Cherokee Chief. His father, Nathaniel Gist, was a Virginia fur trader. Sequoyah was so
metime known by his English name George Gist or Guess.  He married a full blood Cherokee woman called Sallie, or U-ti-yu.  By 1809 he was practicing the trade of silversmith in northern Georgia, and according to the silversmith traditions, he learned to sign his work.

Sequoyah and many other Cherokees enlisted on the side of the United States under General Andrew Jackson to fight the British troops and the Creek Indians in the war of 1812, under Major Ridge. This was where Sequoyah first had the idea for a Cherokee writing system. While serving in the US army during the Creek War (1812-1814) the idea blossomed. He noticed that the American soldiers were writing letters home, writing and reading orders, and recording the events of the war as they happened. Sequoyah realized that a written language could be very beneficial to the Cherokee.

Sequoya was amazed at how the white man communicated through written language.  He decided to dedicate most of his life to make a system of writing for his people.  After the war, he worked for many years developing the characters. Each of the 85 characters Sequoyah created, stands for a syllable in the Cherokee language. During the years of the development, he spent a great deal of this time on Spring Place Plantation, owned by his good friend Rich Joe Vann. He completed the writing system in 1821, after 12 years of hard work.  Sequoya wanted his writing to be used for his people to record their ancient tribal culture. 

After an initial test of his writing system before a Cherokee Council, about 1820, Sequoya was accused of ‘witchcraft’ and his ‘Talking Leaves’ were burned.  Major Ridge was called on, as leader of the Lighthorse Patrol, to punish Sequoyah for practicing witchcraft, in trying to create the syllabary. The leaders of the tribe felt that this written language was the work of the devil, and to force him to stop, they ordered Major Ridge to remove the tops of Sequoya’s fingers. There is some question as to if this punishment was ever carried out.

In 1821, the Cherokee Nation reviewed and adopted the syllabary. The syllabary is remarkable complete and no additions have ever been made. Rich Joe Vann bought a printing press and gave it to Sequoya. He also imported press-men, engravers, type-casters and labor from Europe, to assemble the press and teach the Cherokees how to use it.

Disenchanted with the movement towards nationalism, Sequoyah left the Old Cherokee Nation in Georgia in 1821 and moved to Indian Territory in Arkansas, arriving in 1822. By 1825 much of the Bible and numerous hymns had been translated into Cherokee, it was only a matter of months before thousands of Cherokees were literate, able to read and write their own language. In a few short years one man had achieved a means of communication that had taken other civilizations thousands of years to accomplish. Use of the language spread quickly through the Cherokee Nation. Anyone who could speak the Cherokee language could learn to read or write in two weeks. Thousands of Cherokee began to use Sequoyah's invention on a daily basis and the syllabary gave the nation the ability to create the first American Indian newspaper.

In recognition of this contributions, the Cherokee Nation awarded Sequoyah a sliver medal struck in his honor and a lifetime literary pension. He later left Indian Territory for Mexico (now East Texas), where the Texas Cherokees had accepted land grants from Mexico, under Cherokee Chief John Ross. Sequoyah died in the Republic of Texas in 1843, near present day Tyler, Texas. The giant sequoia trees and Sequoia National Park in California are named after him.

Today, a museum stands at his birth place. Go to . If you are interested in his genealogy, check his tree here.


The Cherokee Phoenix

The first bi-lingual newspaper in the United States, The Cherokee Phoenix, was started on February 21, 1828, with articles in both Cherokee and English. The newspaper carried articles from Washington and local politics. They also printed religious pamphlets, educational materials and legal documents.  All this was done 175 years ago, by a people considered ‘savages’ by the white settlers.  After the Cherokee Nation adopted the syllabary, Sequoyah was hailed as a genius and honored by the Cherokee Nation.  He is one of the best known Cherokees in history and is still considered a genius.

You can go to Cherokee Phoenix from Hunter library to see old editions of the 1800 and you can read the new Cherokee Phoenix here.  Click on it to see a bigger version.


Resources (under construction)

  1. BulletCherokee Language lessons, from the Cherokees of California, Inc.

  2. BulletBasic phrases and words