Sequoyah (c. 1767-c. 1844)
Few people seem less likely to have been the only person in Oklahoma history to create the written form of a language than the great Sequoyah, known also by the English names George Guess, Guest, or Gist. To begin with, his humble Cherokee tribal background is reflected in the fact that neither his birth date nor place of birth are known. In fact, historians can narrow the former down no closer than to sometime between the years between 1760 and 1776, the latter to the Southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.
His white father apparently abandoned Sequoyah and his mother when he was a young boy. Sequoyah also had a serious physical disability, perhaps from childhood.
Remarkably for a person who created an entire syllabary (symbols for the syllables of a spoken language), he could neither speak nor read the English language that grew to permeate the world in which he lived. The written form of it, however, spurred Sequoyah toward his monumental feat. He surmised that the Americans and their society possessed great vigor and power in no small part because of their ability to record and relay their thoughts and communications quickly, effectively, and lastingly by committing them to writing. He determined such a tool might greatly advance both the quality and security of Cherokee civilization.
Around 1809 he began, painstakingly, to craft his syllabary, even as he earned his living silversmithing. He worked for 12 years. During this long period, then when he introduced his creation to other Cherokees, he received anything but accolades and honor. Most of them doubted or even ridiculed him. When he finally convinced his village neighbors by teaching his daughter Ah-yo-ka to read and write, a gathering of Cherokee medicine men rebuffed him.
Through persistence and the fruits of his labor, Sequoyah finally won over his people. At that point, the Cherokees thronged to schools to learn how to read and write their new syllabary. By 1823, it was in wide use across the Cherokee nation, and by 1825, the tribe confirmed it as their official written language.
The rareness of servant’s heart possessed by Sequoyah grew more apparent after this. In 1825, he walked on foot from Tennessee to Arkansas, where lived a group of Cherokees called the Old Settlers, earlier displaced from the southeastern states. There he set up a blacksmith shop and a salt works, and continued to teach the syllabary.
Three years later, he accompanied a Cherokee delegation to Washington, D.C. to negotiate with the U.S. government a treaty for land in Indian Territory. He succeeded in this undertaking.
Upon Sequoyah’s return from Washington, he moved with others into the territory. He lived there for years, working, teaching, and helping build a culture and society that would make life better for the larger groups of his tribesmen who emigrated to the land in the late 1830s during the Trail of Tears. Gradually, he accrued the vision of a common syllabary for all American Indigenous tribes, and traveled as far as modern-day Arizona and New Mexico to encourage other tribes toward this idea.
For his last great crusade, Sequoyah sought to reunite the fractured and dispersed Cherokees. He journeyed even farther in this quest, all the way to Mexico, where he visited Cherokees who had settled there. The time and details surrounding the end of this brilliant, great-hearted servant-champion of his people’s life remain nearly as murky as its beginning. That he died in Mexico is known, but only that it happened sometime between 1843 and 1845.
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