On Trial in Alabama: Sequoyah’s Defense

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Sequoyah and his Syllabary

Sequoyah nurtured a singular dream—to enable his people to record the rich tapestry of the Cherokee language in written form. After twelve years of intense labor, he emerged from his workshop with a detailed set of characters representing the syllables of his mother tongue.

While he had originally started this project as a code for his business records, Sequoyah’s personal experiences and observations during the Creek War ignited a spark within him that gave his invention new meaning. If white soldiers could capture the words of their language and subsequently transcribe them on paper, then the Cherokee could do the same. Rather than keeping his project a secret, Sequoyah set out on a mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of his invention.

The First Experiment

After teaching his daughter and brother-in-law the syllabary, Sequoyah demonstrated its purpose to a group of his more skeptical contemporaries. To prove to the effectiveness of a written language, Sequoyah developed a unique experiment. With his daughter A-yo-ka waiting outside, Sequoyah invited several of his friends and associates into his workshop.

Once inside, he asked them to say something to him in their native tongue. After hearing what was said, Sequoyah would write the words down in his new characters and send it out to A-yo-ka. Moments later, A-yo-ka would come into the room and read the statement. Many of the skeptics left Sequoyah’s workshop convinced that his invention would be a boon for the Cherokee Nation.

The Chatonga Request

At the request of his brother-in-law, Sequoyah demonstrated the syllabary to the leaders of the Chatonga town council in 1821. While a few uttered gasps of shock and horror at the prospect of making the Cherokee language like that of the whites, the council voted to accept the syllabary and asked Sequoyah to teach it to a group of local children. Within a few months, the first generation of Cherokee writers was ready to spread their knowledge to the surrounding communities. Once the seeds of his work had been firmly planted in Georgia, Sequoyah sought to carry his mission to the rest of Cherokee domain.

Sequoyah in Alabama

To prove how effective his syllabary would be in furthering dialogue between the constituent communities of the larger Cherokee Nation, Sequoyah volunteered his services as scribe and messenger. Carrying with him personal messages relayed to him by his friends and neighbors in Georgia, Sequoyah travelled into Alabama in 1822. It was here that he encouraged the greatest resistance to his invention.

Suspicious of the written characters before them, several prominent medicine men (Di-ni-da-nv-wi-sgi) publicly accused Sequoyah of witchcraft. Even among the more modern Cherokee of this era these were serious charges. Applying an 1811 Cherokee law, the medicine men brought Sequoyah and A-yo-ka before a tribunal presided over by Chief George Lowry. Lowry was placed in a precarious position.

On Trial in Alabama

Seeking to placate both sides, Lowry called for a panel of judges from neighboring towns of the Chickamauga. After seven days, the assembled judges were not only impressed by the syllabary, but were themselves able to write the Cherokee language. Within a few months, the constitute communities of the Alabama Cherokee accepted Sequoyah’s syllabary as the official written form of their national language.

Similar movements took place within the heart of Cherokee domain. In 1825, the Cherokee National Council debated the import of the new syllabary. Principal Chief John Ross proposed legislation that would make Sequoyah’s syllabary the official written language of the Cherokee Nation. The council accepted and subsequently awarded Sequoyah a medal for his efforts. Sequoyah became a powerful figure, not only within the Cherokee Nation but throughout the United States. In 1830, the London Courier proclaimed him “one of the most extraordinary men that the world has produced.”

Sources:

  1. Mark C. Carnes, Ed., U.S. History. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996).
  2. John Ehle. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. (New York: Anchor Books, 1989).
  3. Michael Garrett. Walking on the Wind. (Rochester:Bear and Company Publishing, 1998).
  4. Ruth Bradley Holmes and Betty Sharp Smith. Beginning Cherokee. (Norman; University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).
  5. David M Jones and Brian L Molyneaux. Mythology of the American Nations. (London: Anness Publishing, 2006).
  6. Peter Matthiessen, Ed., George Catlin: North American Indians. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).
  7. James M. McPherson. “To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents. (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000).
  8. Marilyn Miller, Ed., The American History Desk Reference. (New York: MacMillan, 1997).
  9. Carl Waldman, The North American Indian. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.)
  10. Carl Waldman, Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2006).
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