Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sequoyah's Syllabary

We spent the morning at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, TN. Before mentioning his significant accomplishment, I want to give some of his background. He was born George Gist, son of Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia fur trader, and Wut-teh, daughter of a Cherokee chief. He was crippled from birth and his characteristic limp may have been the source of his name, Sikwo-yi, a derivation of "pig's foot."

Although he had few friends as a child, he worked on his mother's farm, learning animal husbandry, agriculture, and silversmithing. He served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, and it was during this service that he saw other soldiers reading letters and recognized the advantages of writing thoughts on papers.

After several attempts to create a writing system for the Cherokee, Sequoyah struck on the idea of creating a symbol for a sound. After much adversity (for example, at one point, his wife, who did not share his ambition, destroyed his books and papers), he completed the syllabary (or alphabet), consisting of 86 symbols. In 1821, after 12 years of work, he and his daughter introduced his syllabary to the Cherokee people. Within a few months, thousands of Cherokees had become literate.

[Remember the bear statue in Cherokee (entry two days ago)? Well, I wanted to show it again, because now the headgear, pipe, and letters on the bear, entitled "Sequoyah Syllabeary," have much more meaning.]

A few comic books were on display, showing the application of Sequoyah's alphabet to current writings. (Note the Cherokee writing under "Popeye".)

One of the most beautiful items in the Museum was "The Talking Stick." Carved into this six-foot long walking stick was the entire Cherokee alphbet as well as Seneca masks and clan names of the Cherokee. A portion of this stick is shown on the left. This work was a long-term project of Ross Everhart, a Cherokee Indian.

In recognition of his contributions, the Cherokee Nation awarded Sequoyah a silver medal struck in his honor, and a lifetime literary pension.

The Museum also told the history of the Cherokee nation, which at one time occupied an area covering parts of eight states. The saddest chapter told of the forced removal of the highly civilized, literate Cherokee nation to the Oklahoma territory in 1938, ostensibly for the safety of new settlers, but more accurately, as a means to gain valuable Cherokee land. This removal, because of the cruelty inflicted on the Cherokee by several thousand troops, a cruel winter, and disease, has come to be called "The Trail of Tears."

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