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The Cherokee Syllabary: An Unequaled Accomplishment

A literate man feels master of his fate.
(Mary Burnet)

Cherokee is an Iroquoian Indian language spoken today by about 12,000 people in Oklahoma and North Carolina. Originally from the southeastern United States, the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

Sequoyah (c. 1765-1843) is one of the great names in American history. Though illiterate himself, Sequoyah created a writing system, a task undertaken in modern times only by highly trained linguists. His creation made his nation literate in a few months.

Convinced that the white man's power lay in his written language, he determined to provide the same for Cherokee. After 12 years of hard work he had completed his set of 85 symbols representing all the sounds of his language.

To name the letters, one by one, was to read the word, as if (in English) "enemy" were written "n-m-e," and "Elsie," "l-c."

But he had to convince the tribal elders that it worked. So he and his ten-year-old daughter Ah-yoka, whom he had taught to read and write, carried out a demonstration. Sequoyah left the house while Ah-yoka wrote what the skeptical elders dictated. When he returned, he read all that she had written.

The elders were dumbfounded, then ecstatic. Their own language could be written. It was as good as English.

Literacy caught on like wildfire. Soon these woodland hunters were more literate in two languages than the white population was in one. A steady stream of literature poured from their own press, in Cherokee and English.

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