Sequoyah and the “Talking Leaves”


Inclusion within a particular language family does not automatically cement a tribe to a specific social-political origin. Such is the case with the Cherokee language. While generally accepted as a southern branch of the Iroquoian language family, the historic roots of the Cherokee Nation have not been convincingly traced to the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee).

Ethnographic research has theorized that the Cherokee originated in the Great Lakes region—developing a culture that paralleled that of the Iroquois before migrating to the southeastern portion of North America. This implies that while members of the same language family, the Cherokee and the Iroquois evolved into their own distinct cultures. Linguistic drift has created differences in the polysynthetic structure of Cherokee to make it even more different than its Iroquoian cousin. Moreover, the current written form of the Cherokee language (Tsa-la-gis) has been traced to a single author—a silversmith named Sequoyah.

Early Life

Sequoyah (also known as George Gist, or George Guess) was born in Tennessee between 1760 and 1762—although some records indicate his birth may have occurred as late as 1776. The uncertainty over the dates is linked to the uncertainty over his paternity. Some claim his father to be the fur trader Nathaniel Gist, while others argue it was Colonel George Guess. While little is known about his father, his mother was Wurtehe of the Red Paint Clan. Through his mother, Sequoyah is related to two prominent Cherokee chiefs.

As a child, Sequoyah lived in Taskigi, a Cherokee town located in Tennessee. Suffering from hydro-arthritic swelling of the knee, Sequoyah spent much of his youth inside. During his convalescence, he learned the intricacies of several trades. In 1809, Sequoyah moved to Willstown, Alabama and established himself as a silversmith. Successful at his work, Sequoyah married and built a home for himself. It was through his interaction with white traders that Sequoyah first became interested in the art of writing.

The Talking Leaves

At this period in history, Tsa-la-gis was spoken throughout Cherokee domain but did not exist in written form. The Cherokee communicated in their native tongue among each other, but used English for long distance correspondence and business records. Sequoyah spoke his native tongue well, but knew few words in English. To keep his business records, Sequoyah developed a stylized code that employed pictographs and symbols.

At first, he simply assigned symbols to represent his customers and the products that they purchased. This became exceedingly more complex as his business grew, and Sequoyah realized that a new system was necessary. Long appreciative of the “marks” used by his white customers, Sequoyah began to wonder if such a system could be useful to the Cherokee. His project would take him more than ten years, during which time he would endure the ridicule of his peers. In the end, however, Sequoyah would produce a written syllabary that would allow for the preservation and dissemination of the Cherokee language.


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