A beautiful night…enjoy! RT
The story behind the Cherokee alphabet is one of the most amazing to be found in the history of the written word, one that underscores the importance of writing and the preservation of language in protecting minority cultures.
Let’s begin with a single fact: the Cherokee alphabet is the only instance of an illiterate people creating its own writing system without help or encouragement from an outside culture. The creator of this alphabet (actually, a syllabary) for the Cherokees was himself a Cherokee acting on his own initiative. His name was Sequoyah, and at the time he began his great work, he was illiterate. Wow!!
And before moving on, let’s note another fact: Cherokee is the only Southern Iroquoian language that is still spoken.
Here is Sequoyah’s story, which is mostly the story of how he created his syllabary. Born around 1770 near present-day Knoxville, Tennessee, Sequoyah was the son of a Cherokee mother, Wut-teh, and a white father, Nathaniel Gist, who was a commissioned officer in the Continental Army. He had an English name, George Gist, and was a silversmith by trade, which he practiced in Willstown, Alabama. He fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend as part of the Cherokee Regiment.
As was common among the Cherokee, Sequoyah had multiple wives.
Up to his middle years, Sequoyah seems to have lived a typical life for a Cherokee of his time and place; in 1809, partly out of frustration that he could not write or read letters, partly out of admiration for the English alphabet (which the Cherokees called “talking leaves”), Sequoyah began the mammoth work of creating a writing system for the Cherokee language.
At first, he tried to create a set of ideograms to represent the language; but after a year, he realized that this was not practicable. He next turned to the creation of a syllabary, and by around 1820 had completed his writing system, which contained 86 characters. During this time, as is not uncommon with the obsessed inventor, he neglected his duties, leaving his fields unplanted, and endured the destruction of his early work by one of his wives.
Initial efforts at persuading the Cherokees to adopt his system were met with suspicion and accusations of sorcery, but Sequoyah persevered (the first person to learn the new writing system was his daughter), and by 1825, the Cherokee Nation had officially adopted the syllabary. The results were impressive: a Cherokee, Atsee, translated the Gospel of John into Cherokee; a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, adopted the script in 1828; and before long, the literacy rate among the Cherokee exceeded that of the surrounding white population. In 1828, Sequoyah himself received a silver medal from the Cherokee Nation in honor of his work.
Though the the syllabary has clearly been critical to the survival of the Cherokee language through the many adversities that the Cherokees have endured since its invention (most notably, the Trail of Tears), what may be most remarkable about the Cherokee writing system is the detailed information we have about its creator. The talents behind the Native American craft tradition, to my eye, are evident in the beauty of the Cherokee characters; if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the sign for “wo,” an elegant and compact letterform. We should also not overlook the contribution of the English and Greek letters that Sequoyah adopted for his script. Their angular, geometric form creates an interesting tension when juxtaposed against the sinuous forms that Sequoyah seemed to prefer. Here we have something strange and unparalleled: an American alphabet, one that reflects our roots in both European and Native American history. We can only be thankful that Sequoyah’s syllabary is still in use today; we can only hope that his script’s survival portends new fusions and creations as our culture continues to evolve.
RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Mystery of Vowels
Bottom Image: Author, Kaldari; All images: WikiCommons, Public Domain.
RT has found respite in a worthy activity: this weekend, for the first time in more than a couple of years, he has gone out and earned honest money. The work, however, has been highly unusual for him: he is helping a friend and her son clear their sizable property of fallen tree trunks and branches. He freely confesses that part of this work has involved the use of a chainsaw (in fact, more than one), by far the most powerful (and dangerous) machine he has ever operated.
Saw and axe (and while we’re at it, hammer and nail) share a peculiar place in the human imagination. As anyone who has read Gilgamesh has probably realized, this hero’s expedition to the Cedar Forest is merely the first recorded incident of mankind’s absolute obsession with felling trees. Why we must cut down the most beautiful forests (or climb mountains or erect standing stone pillars) is anyone’s guess, but the motivations seem intertwined with our deepest spiritual impulses. To panel the Sun God’s temple in cedar, to reach the habitation of the gods, to compass the stars are all ways of connecting with nature and the absolute, of rendering homage to the unfathomable.
And yet there is also no denying that these activities are among the most destructive we engage in. Perhaps the problem lies in stripping the sacred from human activity, of turning a temple into suburban sprawl, of creating traffic jams of people waiting to get to the top of Everest, of littering low Earth orbit with space junk. What began as worship has transmogrified itself into mountaintop removal.
I enjoyed working with the two chain saws–neither of them especially large and one adapted for removing low-hanging tree limbs. I am reminded of Rita Mae Brown’s advice–the intellectual work of writing should be balanced with physical labor. Or again, I think of William Faulkner’s sabbatical spent working in a factory–as Benito Juarez spent his exile from Mexico in the United States. For their own sanity, writers must occasionally engage in the first worship of physical exertion.
Latest update: i’m still helping my friend clean up the house, but now the work is decidedly less glamorous (but all the same, safer). Two weeks further into this gig I’m cleaning up several rooms that will be rented as an apartment. & these rooms have not been well-tended in some time: dirt, grease, dirty fridge…you get the picture. On the other hand, my boss is ADD and has *no* problem with me getting up to blog at 2:30 in the morning, since she (and often, her son) are up at the same hour doing whatever. & it’s nice having a room w/ a door i can shut & kitchen privileges.
What does this have to do with being a writer? I guess every writer needs to discover that an alternate universe exists where such things as ADD, writing, and the willingness to do manual labor are assets. RT
Image: Early Mechanical Saw, 1860; Hamilton; WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Poetry is a form of magic, as is its close cousin, drawing. And what is magic, if not the gift outright? Here, by way of proof, is a portrait by someone whose work can take us someplace marvelous… RT
ps. i wish there were an alphabet that had this quality of drawing the viewer in…
“And strange at Ecbactan the trees/” from Arab Writer Chick…enjoy, folks! RT