Native Village Youth and Education News
September 2009


Carvings From Cherokee Script’s Dawn
By John Noble Wilford

Condensed by Native Village

Kentucky: Sequoyah, an illiterate Cherokee, watched in awe as white settlers made marks on paper. He was convinced that these “talking leaves” were the source of white power and success. This inspired his life's ambition: to create a Cherokee written language. He began his project in 1809. It took him ten years to complete.

The Cherokee syllabary has 85 characters. Each represents a distinct sound, and combinations of these syllables spell words. Soon, most Cherokees had adopted this syllabary, and Sequoyah became the hero who invented the first Native American script in North America.

Archaeologist Kenneth B. Tankersley, a Cherokee and professor at the University of Cincinnati, has now found what may be the earliest known examples of the Sequoyah's syllabary. The characters are cut into the wall of a Kentucky cave where Red Bird. Tamlersley's ancestor and revered Cherokee chief, is buried.  Inscribed on the limestone wall are 15 identifiable characters from the syllabary.  The 15 characters do not spell any words. “They read almost like ABCs,” Dr. Tankersley said

Also written is a date which, he believes, is the same hand. The date appears to be 1818 or 1808, at least a year earlier than any other known records of the script.  If the date proves to be 1808, Dr. Tankersley believes Sequoyah, himself, had probably carved the characters since only he imagined the syllabury at that time.  If it was 1818, it is possible that someone who learned from Sequoyah had made the characters.

Specialists in Cherokee writing have yet to analyze the findings. William D. Welge from the Oklahoma Historical Society said it “was reasonable to think that Sequoyah or one of his students carved these writing symbols.”  He said new findings about Sequoyah are important because his syllabury promoted rapid strides in Cherokee education. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, within five years,  “thousands of Cherokees were literate — far surpassing the literacy rates of their white neighbors.”

It was not long before the Cherokee were printing a newspaper and learning hymns (one sung to the tune of Amazing Grace”) in the new script. The Christian bible was also translated into the language.

Cherokee Phoenix News:  First issue in 1828, and still publishing today.

Native Village News September 2009
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