Home . . . 513-348-4744 . . . Email

Cherokee

Cherokee translation of "May Peace Prevail on Earth"

Cherokee is the only known instance of an individual single-handedly creating an entirely new system of writing. It was created by the Cherokee man known as Sequoyah. He was born around 1770 near what is now Knoxville, Tennessee. His father, an English fur trader, and his mother, the daughter of a prominent Cherokee family, named him George Gist or George Guess. But on his own he adopted the name Sequoyah.

Sequoyah was illiterate when he watched white settlers making marks on paper, that he called "talking leaves," and recognized the power in being able to do that. Capturing that power for his people became his consuming ambition, so much so that one year he didn't even take time to plant crops. His friends called him crazed. His wife thought it was the work of the devil and destroyed much of his early work. But he persisted and finally, near the end of his life, he and his daughter traveled to Arkansas where they presented his writing system to Cherokee leaders. It took months to make clear to them what he had accomplished. Eventually they understood and encouraged instruction in it among the Cherokee people.

This is the only known instance of a member of a pre-literate people creating an entire writing system, and he did it in spite of being surrounded by people who believed that writing either was sorcery or pretense. 

Sequoyah's invention of this writing system enabled rapid strides in the education and culture of one of the largest Native American populations.

When set in type his name is Sequoyah, but when he wrote it by hand it was ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya (with a few hours of work I could turn those boxes into the artwork for necessary to appear as characters on the web). However, today, using that numeral 4 in it, the Cherokee spell it ᏎᏉᏯ Se-quo-ya.

In his system of writing, each of the 85 sounds used in the spoken Cherokee language has its own symbol. Many of the characters resemble Roman, Cyrillic or Greek letters or Arabic numerals, but there does not appear to be any relation between the sounds those symbols stand for in their original languages and the sounds they stand for in Cherokee.

It sounds like legend to finish the story by saying that to honor him the tree, Sequoia, was named after him. But that giant tree was not seen by anyone of European descent until 1833. The earliest known written reference to it is in the diary of the explorer J. K. Leonard in that year. Leonard was leading an expedition of hunters who stumbled on the trees. But so many tall tales came back from the west back then that not much credence was given to it.

It was not until 1852 that the first documented sighting took place when another hunter stumbled on the giant trees. He reported them in a mining camp where he was not believed. So he led them to the site to confirm it.

Upon learning about that an English botanist, who had never seen the trees and never even been to California, named the trees Wellingtonia in honor of the Duke of Wellington. A non-America naming an American tree for another country’s royalty resulted in many articles and letters written and published arguing about that.

A deceased botanist from Austria named Stephan Endlicher, who specialized in conifers, previously had named the coast redwood Sequoya in honor of George Guess. Apparently that name was transferred to the tree we now call Sequoya. A search of Endlicher’s papers finds no instance of the word Sequoya or mention of the Cherokee system of writing, casting doubt on the validity of the story. However, it does appear that George Guess named himself Sequoya before that name was used to refer to a tree, which lends credibility to the tree’s having been named after him rather than the other way around. It sounds like the stuff of legend, but it might not be. And even if it is, the research on it uncovers a noticeable esteem in which he was held for his work by educated people of that era, and that is heartwarming in and of itself.

More about this can be read on Wikipedia at this link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoyah