Sequoyah’s Public Life

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Despite seeking a quiet retirement among the western Cherokee, Sequoyah’s popularity made him a much sought after figure.

Sequoyah as Cultural Figure

While the Cherokee government struggled to maintain an untenable position in the east, Sequoyah settled into his new life among the growing colony of Cherokee in Indian Territory. Not one to lead a sedentary retirement, he divided his time between teaching the syllabary and returning to his profession as a silversmith. Now a figure of immense popularity, his advice was often sought in matters of state. When asked to adapt his syllabary for use among the Choctaws, Sequoyah obliged. In 1827, the western Cherokee appointed Sequoyah as part of a tribal delegation to Washington D.C. It was during this diplomatic mission that Sequoyah was immortalized in ink by the American painter, Charles Bird King.

Additional Work on the Syllabary

With an eye for detail, Sequoyah continued to refine his syllabary long after it had been officially adopted by the Cherokee. While he had given his people a written means of expression in their mother tongue, Sequoyah realized that the Cherokee lacked a numeric system. Even in the Cherokee Phoenix, numerals were expressed in Arabic form. Sequoyah spent months creating unique characters representing the words for these numerals before presenting the finished project to the council of the western Cherokee. Ultimately, the western government declined to accept his written numerals. While praising Sequoyah for his efforts, the council argued that the Arabic numerals used by the whites would be sufficient. A record of this numeric chart, written in the author’s own hand, still exists. In teaching the language, Cherokee speakers have translated the spoken numeral into its Cherokee equivalent—for instance, one is translated as sa-quu-i. Undeterred, Sequoyah continued to make revisions to the syllabary for the remainder of his life.

A Nation Divided

In 1839, the eastern Cherokee were forcibly removed from their domain and escorted to Indian Territory. This devastating march was known in the Cherokee vernacular as Nv-na Da-u-la Tsv-yi (“the trail where we cried”). As a result of this influx, two governments struggled for supremacy over the tattered remains of the Cherokee Nation. The Western Cherokee felt that their eastern cousins should subject themselves to their authority. John Ross, Principal Chief of the eastern government, had other designs. Ross felt that the government of the east should remain in existence until it had settled all its debts with the United States. A general election was to be held, but the divisions within the eastern government over the issue of relocation endangered any sense of unity.

The Sage of the West

To ease tension between the feuding Cherokee, Sequoyah was invited to a general council meeting. Arriving to find the meeting in such disarray that the representatives of the western government had already left, he nonetheless addressed the crowd. Urging calm and unity, Sequoyah stressed the need for resolution. To Sequoyah, a divided government would only destroy the Cherokee. While it seemed his words fell upon deaf ears, Sequoyah’s very appearance at this meeting was enough to temporarily restore a sense of unity among the western and eastern branches of the nation. Having done all that was within his power to reunite the tribe, Sequoyah returned home. In the years following the relocation of the Cherokee to Indian Territory, Sequoyah remained an activate participant in the affairs of his people. In 1842, Sequoyah set out on yet another journey for the betterment of the Cherokee Nation. It would be his last.