Sequoyah and Oral History

 

Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith who was also known as George Gist (or perhaps Guist or Guess), developed the Cherokee syllabary and has become a hero not only to the Cherokee, but for all Americans. His image is on one of  the doors of the Library of Congress, in the National Statuary Hall in the nation’s capitol, his name was proposed as the name of a state, and his likeness has been on a stamp.

Sequoyah’s childhood, birth year, and birthplace are difficult to pinpoint because of so many conflicting reports. Some say Sequoyah was born in a village in Tuskegee, Tennessee, but others claim Georgia or Alabama. While his birthplace isn’t known for sure, all historians agree that it was in that area of the country. Historians are also unsure about Sequoyah’s father. Some say he was a German trader named Nathaniel Gist (or some variation on that name), but there is general agreement that Sequoyah was a member of the Paint Clan in the Cherokee community. The most conclusive thing historians can say about Sequoyah is that he was born somewhere in the lower Appalachian region, between the years 1755 and 1775, and that his mother was Cherokee.

Historians also know that Sequoyah’s mother traded goods and that after her death, Sequoyah moved to Willis Valley in Alabama, where he married and became a silversmith. There are no known examples of his work identified today.

It is not known how Sequoyah first encountered the concept of writing. Some say he wanted to sign his work as other silversmiths did, and others say that he had seen other soldiers writing letters home when he served in the Civil War. Either way, Sequoyah recognized the power of the written word and was convinced that he could create written Cherokee himself.

Some say that the Cherokee community thought that writing was a form of witchcraft or that it was something imposed on the Cherokee by other cultures. Others claim that Cherokee had previously had a written form and that Sequoyah rediscovered it. Neither of these stories is supported by historical evidence.

Sequoyah spent a lot of time and effort working out how to write Cherokee and originally used logograms to represent whole words, but found they were too numerous and difficult to remember. Instead, he developed the Cherokee syllabary, which is based on syllable sounds.

Sequoyah taught his daughter Ah-yo-ka to read and write using his Cherokee syllabary. He convinced others that it worked by showing that he and his daughter could communicate without being near one another, through the writing. In 1821, the Cherokee government accepted the syllabary and it soon was used for newspapers and books. Some claim that by 1830, 90% of the Cherokee were literate. The General Council of the Eastern Cherokees voted to give Sequoyah a large silver medal as a mark of distinction and he is often depicted wearing the medal of honor. Sequoyah became a trusted leader in the Cherokee community and was sent to negotiate with other members of a Cherokee delegation for land for the Cherokee people. In 1839, Sequoyah was elected President of the Western Cherokees.

Sequoyah continued his work and began attempts to develop one universal written language for all Native American tribes to use. He started travels across the country to learn about other tribes. Accounts of the end of his life claim that all his works were washed away while camping out in a cave, waiting for others in his traveling party to return with horses after theirs were stolen. Sequoyah died in July or August of 1843.

Lesson Plan Activity

  • Share the story of Sequoyah with students in your own words, acknowledging the varying stories and the uncertainty about the facts.
  • Ask students why they think that the biography of Sequoyah is so filled with uncertainties. Elicit the idea that, since the Cherokee did not have a written language, information about people’s birth, parentage, and early life was not written down. Instead, it was shared as oral history.
  • Ask students to retell the story of Sequoyah to one another in pairs.
  • Ask students to then write down the story in their own words once they finish retelling the story.
  • Choose a few students to read their biographies of Sequoyah and ask students how they are different. What parts do the stories include? Are there parts of the story left out? Has anyone added to the story?
  • As a class, create sentence strips with sentences that describe events in the life of Sequoyah.
  • Mix up the strips and place them on a table or other work space. Ask the students to put the story sentences in order chronologically.
  • Discuss with students how writing down the story helped clarify it and made it easier to remember.
  • Add the events to the class timeline.

Discuss any remaining questions and finish up with an individual writing assignment. Students can either copy out or begin with the sentence strips. Older students can research Sequoyah’s life, noting how many versions of the story can be found and how little evidence there is. You might like to complete the study with a brief video from Georgia Stories.

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