Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.