The Power of the Cherokee Syllabary: Sequoyah and A-yo-ka

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In 1821, Sequoyah completed a project that had consumed him for nearly twelve years. After much experimentation, he produced a syllabary for the Cherokee language—86 unique characters that allowed his mother tongue to have expression through the written word. This number would later be reduced to 85 characters.

Enduring the skepticism of his friends and the suspicions of his wife, Sequoyah embraced his task with all the fervor of a man possessed. While few believed in the practicality of having a written syllabary for the Cherokee language, Sequoyah knew that it would be a boon for his people. The first person to be taught the syllabary was Sequoyah’s own daughter, A-yo-ka. Sequoyah would write a sentence in the new characters and give it to A-yo-ka, who would then repeat the words to her father.

This would be first exchange of Cherokee from written form to the spoken word. Teaching the syllabary to A-yo-ka was easy. Convincing his peers to recognize the importance of a written language would take more effort.

Di-tsa-la-gis in Action

To demonstrate the effectiveness of his syllabary, Sequoyah invited his friends and neighbors to his workshop. A-yo-ka would wait outside, away from the gathered adults. Sequoyah would then ask his visitors to say something to him in Cherokee. Sequoyah would write the sentence down and send it outside to A-yo-ka. Moments later, A-yo-ka would come into the building and read the sentence from the paper—much to the astonishment of the assembled adults.

These stories were recounted by several of the adults who had witnessed these demonstrations. Some were impressed, while a few expressed horror at what they had witnessed. Cries of witchcraft were even uttered by some of the more traditional skeptics. Sequoyah soon taught his nephew how to read the syllabary and demonstrated its usefulness to even more of his contemporaries. When the brother of a local chief asked Sequoyah to record the speeches at a village council meeting he readily agreed.

Spreading the Word

To demonstrate the importance of having a written language, Sequoyah undertook a series of experiments. At the urging of the Chatonga town council, he surveyed the border between Cherokee domain and the states of Tennessee and Georgia. Recording his findings in the new syllabary, Sequoyah then presented his report to the council. The assembled leaders were astonished to see the series of strange marks on the paper come to life in the stressed tones of the Cherokee language.

Remembering how white soldiers had communicated with their families during the Creek War, Sequoyah asked several of his friends to dictate messages to relatives in other towns. Taking the letters with him, Sequoyah proved that the Cherokee did not need to rely on English to communicate over distances—they could communicate in their own words and in their own tongue. This was the power of the written word. A power that both impressed and terrified.

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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