In 1821, George Guess or Gist, better known as Sequoyah, revealed a written version of the Cherokee Language, called a syllabary. Sequoyah studied the Cherokee language's syntax and structure for twelve years. He endured much ridicule from family and tribal members for his desire to have a written language. Regardless, he worked on and found a formula that made sense.
The syllabary was the greatest cultural and educational gift for the Cherokees because it gave them an advantage over other tribes and put them on an even ground with the Americans. Within a year after its introduction, 90% of the Cherokee people could read and write in Sequoyah's syllabary because it was so logical to the native speaker. This rate of literacy was unheard of at that time, or even today. The syllabary represented an adaptation and innovation that enabled the Cherokees to communicate in a more widespread and permanent fashion at a very serious moment in their existence. They began publishing a paper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in 1828, printed in both English and the syllabary.
Sequoyah was born in approximately 1770 in the lower Appalachian region of Tennessee. He operated a trading post and was known as a skilled blacksmith and silversmith, not to mention a gifted artist. He married several times and fathered many children. In 1818, Sequoyah departed his eastern home to own and operate a salt production and blacksmith works near present day Russellville, Arkansas. After a delegation trip to Washington DC in 1828, Sequoyah traded his land and salt works for a similar piece of land in present day Oklahoma.
In 1842, deciding to research some tribal folklore about a band of Cherokees that had moved west of the Mississippi River preceding the American Revolution, Sequoyah traveled to the Southwest and into Mexico to find this lost band. He died on his travels and his burial place is unmarked and unknown.
Today, the Cherokee language remains very important in preserving our culture. It is spoken by approximately 10,000 people in the Cherokee Nation, as well as speakers in the homelands (of the Eastern Band of Cherokee). Some Cherokees who speak the language have relocated to other areas of the world.
The western and eastern dialects are different in many ways, although extremely similar. Here in the Cherokee Nation, there are many different dialects as well as slang words. Many words that are descriptive of cultural mannerisms, feelings, events, and ceremonies are only identifiable in the native tongue. There are no comparable words in the English language. All prayers and other ceremonies used at stomp dances and by medicine people are in the Cherokee language, as well.
Painting By Charles Banks-Wilson.