Sequoyah (ca. 1770-ca. 1840)
Sequoyah, or Sequoia (both spellings were given by missionaries, but in Cherokee the name is closer to Sikwayi or Sogwali), also called George Gist or George Guess, was the legendary creator of the Cherokee syllabary.
Born in a village in the mountains of Tennessee, he resettled in Arkansas when tribal land along the Little Tennessee River was ceded to whites in the 1790s. In 1829 he moved to Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. He died in Texas or Mexico while attempting to contact fellow Cherokees who had moved even farther away from encroaching whites. Sequoyah visited northwest Georgia only sporadically, when he passed through or returned to advise eastern Cherokees on conditions in the West. He also traveled to teach the syllabary and to encourage its use among the far-flung members of his tribe.
From the 1820s, when the syllabary became well known, until the 1960s, published accounts agreed that Sequoyah was the son of a Cherokee mother and a white father, almost certainly Nathaniel Gist, a commissioned officer in the Continental army and emissary of George Washington. Sequoyah nevertheless appeared to be a full-blooded Indian who remained true to the traditions of his people, never adopting white dress, religion, or other customs. In particular, he spoke no language other than Cherokee.
Impressed by the whites' ability to communicate over distances by writing, Sequoyah invented a system of eighty-four to eighty-six characters that represented syllables in spoken Cherokee (hence it is a syllabary, not an alphabet). Cherokee Nation, the U.S. Congress, and various states. There are monuments, parks, and schools named for Sequoyah in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and other states. The giant sequoia tree, found in California, is named for him.
In 1971 Traveller Bird, claiming to be a direct descendant of Sequoyah, published the book Tell Them They Lie: The Sequoyah Myth, which posits a vastly different tradition. According to Bird, Sequoyah was indeed the full-blooded Native American he appeared to be, who all his life opposed the submission and assimilation of his people into white culture.
It is fact that the syllabary was used to print some articles in the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, published in New Echota, Calhoun in 1962.
Media Gallery: Sequoyah (ca. 1770-ca. 1840)