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Legendary Creator of the Cherokee Syllabary (Alphabet)



(Born between 1760 and 1776, Tennessee Mountains; Died in 1843, near Tyler, Texas)


Sequoyah is known as the only person in history to invent a written language without being literate in any language. In 1821, Sequoyah demonstrated his alphabet before Tsalagi leaders who were amazed and impressed by the accomplishment. It was quickly adopted as the official written language of the Tsalagi.

Bronze Sequoyah

Overview and Contributions:

Sequoyah, or Sequoia (both spellings were given by missionaries, but in Cherokee the name is closer to Sikwayi or Sogwali), also known as George Gist or George Guess, was the legendary creator of the Cherokee syllabary. He was the son of Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia fur trader, and Wut-teh, daughter of a Cherokee chief. After Sequoyah had been crippled by a hunting accident in 1809, he became interested in developing an alphabet, or table of characters, for the eighty-six syllables in the Cherokee language. By 1821 his task was completed and approved by the Cherokee chiefs. The results: In a short time thousands of his people learned to read and write.


The influence of Sequoyah’s work on the Cherokee Nation’s efforts to develop a culture more in keeping with European standards was significant. His syllabary helped the Cherokee overcome the limitations of a strictly oral culture and establish a constitutional basis for their government. Without Sequoyah’s work, of course, the Cherokee’s newspaper would have been impossible, and the efforts of missionaries to convert them to Christianity would have lagged.


Humble Beginnings of a Great Man:

Sequoyah was born about 1776* to a Native American woman named Wut-teh and an obscure white trader named Nathaniel Gist. After Nathaniel Gist abandoned his family soon after his child’s birth, Sequoyah and his mother lived alone in the foothills of the Great Smokies near the sacred town of Echota in what is now Tennessee. As he grew older, Sequoyah showed artistic and mechanical skill that would help him with what, early on, became his life’s task. In his solitude, Sequoyah had found plenty of time to contemplate some of the things that were to him a teasing mystery. The most important of these was the European’s ability to put thoughts upon paper and understand them.

*Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Nation and; additional sources vary and reflect 1760 - 1776


(Right) Lee Lawrie, sculpted bronze figure of Sequoyah (1939). Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.


The Foundations of Cherokee Literacy:

Around 1809 Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language. This work took Sequoyah 12 years to complete. Sequoyah refused to share the belief of some of his people that written speech was a gift of the Great Spirit. He boldly declared it to be a mere ingenious thing almost anyone could master with sufficient effort. The young man soon focused his effort and talents toward creating a way for his people to communicate over distance and time, as well as preserve their wisdom, history, and culture for future generations. Sequoyah sought at first to make a character for each word, but in a year he had thousands of characters, that even he could not decipher. Finally, he began attempting to develop an alphabet based on syllables in the language—a system in which single letters would stand for syllables. By 1820 he had determined that there were 86 syllables in the Cherokee language and that for his alphabet he would need a corresponding number of characters. To solve the problem of creating so many distinctive characters, Sequoyah adapted Roman letters, adding curls and dashes and turning them upside down.

A Convincing Demonstration:

A dozen years had gone into the work, and now he was ready to make his invention known to his people. The first scholar was his own daughter. In only a few days, she was able to read and write. In 1821, he and his daughter appeared before a gathering of the tribal heads. He sent his daughter away and out of earshot. Then he asked one of the principal men "to make a few sentences of talk." As it was spoken, Sequoyah "put it down on paper." Then he called his daughter, and she read it back to the group. Soon the entire nation was reading and writing Cherokee. The demand for pen and paper skyrocketed among the Cherokee, and letters sped from the East to the West where a small band of 1,000 had moved in 1817. A translation of the New Testament using the new syllabary was completed in 1825, and in 1827 the Council of the Cherokee Nation formally resolved to establish a national newspaper "in the mother tongue." Two years earlier the Legislative Council of the Cherokee Nation had presented Sequoyah with a medal as a token of respect and admiration for his ingenuity. In 1917 the State of Oklahoma presented to the United States a statue of Sequoyah, placed in the Hall of Statuary in the National Capital. Today a large wooden statue in his honor stands in Cherokee.

Cherokee Alphabet
Cherokee Alphabet.gif
Who invented or created the Cherokee Alphabet? Sequoyah.

Sequoyah's namesake:
The name of the district where Sequoyah lived in Oklahoma was changed to Sequoyah District in 1851. When Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907, as the 46th state, that area became known as Sequoyah County.
The Sequoia tree, named shortly after his death, is thought to be named for him.
The proposed State of Sequoyah was named in his honor.
Sequoyah High School (Oklahoma) is a Native American boarding school named after the creator of the Cherokee syllabary.
Sequoyah High School (Tennessee) is a public high school in Madisonville, Tennessee named after him. Sequoyah Research Center is a research center dedicated to collecting and archiving Native American thought and literature.
Mount Sequoyah in the Great Smoky Mountains was named in honor of him.
Mount Sequoyah in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was named in honor of him after the city donated the top of East Mountain to the Methodist Assembly for a retreat.
The Sequoyah Hills neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee, bears his name.
The Tennessee Valley Authority Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station bears his name.
The Sequoyah Marina on Norris Lake which is impounded by Norris Dam, the first hydro-electric dam in Tennessee built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, was named in honor of Sequoyah.
The Sequoyah Elementary School in Russellville, Arkansas, bears his name.
The USS Sequoia was a long-time yacht used by American Presidents (now privately owned).
The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum "strives to promote the understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of the Cherokee Indians in Eastern Tennessee, particularly the life and contributions of Sequoyah."
Sequoyah Caverns and Ellis Homestead is a set of cavern systems in Valley Head, Alabama, named after him.
Sequoyah's Cabin, a frontier cabin which he lived in during 1829-1844, is located in Oklahoma. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

(Sources and related reading listed at bottom of page)

Do you want to speak the Cherokee language? Then consider purchasing: Beginning Cherokee (Audio CDs) (January 5, 2005) (3CDs and Text). Description: This course is the first of its kind and teaches the basics of Cherokee, the native tongue of about 20,000 Americans who use it only as a second language. If you ever thought about learning the Cherokee language, purchase this CD set and you won't be disappointed! "Worth its weight in gold." "Absolutely priceless!" Continued below...

How about reading, writing, and speaking in Cherokee? Then also purchase its companion, Beginning Cherokee (332 pages) (University of Oklahoma Press). While there have been other attempts to write language instruction in Cherokee; all others are too complex. "Beginning Cherokee is the very best for both 'spoken and written Cherokee!'"

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Related Reading:

Do you desire to speak, read, and write in the Cherokee language? Consider purchasing: Beginning Cherokee, Ruth Bradley Holmes (Author), Ruth Bradley Holmes (Author), (332 pages) (University of Oklahoma Press). Description: This is the best primer on both spoken and written Cherokee! There have been other attempts to write language instruction in Cherokee; all the others that I have seen are too complex...attempting to teach too much, too fast. Cherokee is so unlike English, in terms of grammar and syntax, that learning the language is difficult; however, the difficulty is minimized by starting slowly and building vocabulary first. The optional accompanying CDs, Beginning Cherokee, are an invaluable addition. Continued below…
Review: Michael from Norman, Oklahoma: “I began learning Cherokee with this book over a decade ago. Growing up in Illinois, I didn't have a Cherokee community around that I could learn from. Over the years this book has became absolutely invaluable to me. I have read almost all the Cherokee language books written, and this is definitely one of the best. When I finally did get to Oklahoma to work on my Master's, I was actually able to talk to Cherokees in Cherokee largely through the rules of grammar, sentence structure, etc. that this book taught me. I also learned the syllabary through this book.”
Review: Rachel in Columbia, Missouri, writes: “I taught my four children to read and speak Cherokee with this book. For years it was the only Cherokee resource we had, and we treasured it. Many people today take Native American language courses for granted, but there was a time, not so long ago, when all native languages were headed for extinction. Many still are. This book paved the way for others, and the author should be recognized for her pioneering work.”
Recommended Reading: Sequoyah: Inventor of Written Cherokee, by Roberta Basel. Description: The United States was growing at a rapid pace. For the settlers who were pushing west to the frontier and the Native Americans who were protecting their lands, life was filled with danger and difficulties. People who wove their way into history overcame their challenges with a courage that defined an era and shaped a nation. Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian, is best known for inventing a system of writing for the Cherokee language. Continued below...
In 1821, after more than a decade of work, he succeeded in creating a set of symbols to represent the sounds of spoken Cherokee. The new written language was easy to learn and helped boost ethnic pride. Sequoyah won the respect of his people and was soon operating as a delegate in Cherokee dealings with the United States. He died in 1843 on a mission to unify the Cherokee people.

Recommended Reading: Sequoyah, by Robert J. Conley (217 pages) (Hardcover). Description: Sequoyah is arguably the single most significant and important figure in the history of the Cherokee people. Born in the late 18th century, Sequoyah's life was marked by the major conflicts and events of his time. From the expulsion and massacres, to the Indian wars fought at the side of Andrews Jackson, to the treaty violations and removals to the reservations, Sequoyah was a revered leader of the Cherokee. Continued below…

But as important as he was to the unfolding events of history, Sequoyah is best remembered for his singular contribution to the Cherokee culture and language. Sequoyah produced the first syllabary for Cherokee, through which their history, tradition, and cultured was recorded and preserved. Robert J. Conley is one of the most acclaimed writers of the American West and of his own peopled, the Cherokee, having won myriad fans with his moving historical novels about the Real People.In Sequoyah, he brings to vivid life one of the single most significant figures in the Cherokee people- a man who fought for his people's survival with both actions and words, and triumphed using ideas. About the Author: Robert J. Conley is the author of nearly forty novels, including his much praised "Real People" novels about the Cherokee. Three-time winner of the Spur Award as well as a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award, among many other honors, Conley is Cherokee and lives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Recommended Reading: Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (Facts on File Library of American History) (Hardcover). Booklist: More than 450 inventions and innovations that can be traced to indigenous peoples of North, Middle, and South America are described in this wonderful encyclopedia. Criteria for selection are that the item or concept must have originated in the Americas, it must have been used by the indigenous people, and it must have been adopted in some way by other cultures. Continued below...

Some of the innovations may have been independently developed in other parts of the world (geometry, for example, was developed in ancient China, Greece, and the Middle East as well as in the Americas) but still fit all three criteria. The period of time covered is 25,000 B.C. to the twentieth century. Among the entries are Adobe, Agriculture, Appaloosa horse breed, Chocolate, Cigars, Diabetes medication, Freeze-drying, Hydraulics, Trousers, Urban planning, and Zoned biodiversity. Readers will find much of the content revealing. The authors note that the Moche "invented the electrochemical production of electricity" although they used it only for electroplating, a process they developed "more than a thousand years" before the Europeans, who generally get the credit. The Aztec medical system was far more comprehensive than anything available in Europe at the time of contact.


The Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World is an "Eyeopener to the innumerable contributions of the American Indian to our nation and to world civilizations...."


The awards it has won and some of the print reviews this book has received are listed below.

Winner 11th Annual Colorado Book Award, Collections and Anthologies

Winner Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Writer of the Year, Creative Reference Work, 2002

Selected by Booklist as Editors Choice Reference Source, 2002

"This is a well-written book with fascinating information and wonderful pictures. It should be in every public, school, and academic library for its depth of research and amazing wealth of knowledge. We've starred this title because it is eye-opening and thought-provoking, and there is nothing else quite like it." Booklist Starred Review

"[An] interesting, informative, and inspiring book." Native Peoples Magazine

"I would strongly urge anyone with a kernel of intellectual curiosity: teacher, administrator, researcher, lawyer, politician, writer, to buy this book. I guarantee it will enlighten, stimulate and entertain...Native students and indigenous instructors must obtain their own copies of the Encyclopedia. Whether Cree, Mayan or Penobscot they will find a deep source of pride on each and every page. I can well imagine the excitement of Native teachers when they obtain the book followed by an eagerness to share its contents with everyone within reach."

"I hope the Encyclopedia will serve as the basis for an entirely new approach to Native history, one in which the scholar is liberated from the anti-Indian texts of the recent past. Ideally, a copy of the Encyclopedia should be in every class in every school across the hemisphere." Akwesasne Notes-Indian Time–Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and the Akwesasne Communications Society

"Highly recommended for academic libraries keeping collections about American Indians." Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

"Native accomplishments finally get their due in this award-winning book." American Indian Report

"A treasure trove of information about the large range of technologies and productions of Indian peoples. This is indeed the most comprehensive compilation of American Indian inventions and contributions to date. It is most worthwhile and should be on the bookshelves of every library and home in America." Indian Country Today

"This large, well-illustrated volume is an excellent reference. One of the important strengths of the encyclopedia is that the information provided is balanced and rooted in facts, not speculation. Highly recommended." Multicultural Review

"Far from the stereotypical idea that Native Americans were uncultured and simple, possessing only uncomplicated inventions such as bows and arrows or canoes, these varied cultures donated a rich assortment of ideas and items to the world. This book can be recommended to libraries that support an interdisciplinary approach to student learning, such as units that integrate biology and culture studies projects." VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates

"...a comprehensive, unique A to Z reference to the vast offerings made by the American Indians throughout history." Winds of Change (American Indian Science and Engineering Society)

"We bought one for each center. It is a GREAT resource." Ann Rutherford, Director Learning Resources Center, Oglala Lakota College


"As I travel to conferences and host presentations, I take your book as a reference and to show individuals. It allows science, engineering and math students to gain insight into the traditional knowledge held about these and related subjects. I believe it empowers them to know this knowledge is already within. To balance contemporary knowledge within that context creates a student who can experience a topic from a number of perspectives." Jacqueline Bolman, Director, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Scientific Knowledge for Indian Learning and Leadership (SKILL)/NASA Honors Program


"…the three page introduction alone makes this book a valuable resource as it sets forth the circumstances which led the invaders to change their initial writings of wonder at the advanced native societies…I hope a way can be found to put this book in the hands of our youth and all who touch them." Carter Camp, American Indian rights activist, Ponca tribal leader and founder of Kansas/Oklahoma AIM

Sources: Official Website of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation; Museum of the Cherokee Indian; The New Georgia Encyclopedia; Cherokee Phoenix; Manataka American Indian Council; Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook;; Bender, Margaret. (2002) Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press; Feeling, Durbin. Cherokee-English Dictionary: Tsalagi-Yonega Didehlogwasdohdi. Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee Nation, 1975: xvii; Holmes, Ruth Bradley; Betty Sharp Smith (1976). Beginning Cherokee: Talisgo Galiquogi Dideliquasdodi Tsalagi Digoweli. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1362-6; Foreman, Grant, Sequoyah, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman,OK, 1938; McKinney, Thomas and Hall, James, History of the Indian Tribes of North America. (Philadelphia, PA, 1837-1844.); Library of Congress.

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