Tale of the Talking Leaves

Imagine living in a world where there are no newspapers or books to read. Think of the days when there was no alphabet or script to write or read. That is how life was for early Cherokee Native Indians until one man gave the gift of their life and erased illiteracy. 

Around 1760 a boy named Sequoyah (also known as George Gist) was born in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee (now in the state of Tennessee) to a Cherokee Indian mom and a settler dad. He and his mom were abandoned by his father and they lived with his grandparents. As a young kid, he was interested in the stories of his grandfather and village storytellers. He loved to hear about the adventures they described. As Sequoyah grew older, he saw how the Cherokee culture was changing and his people were quickly adopting the ways of settlers. He was worried that the old stories and ways of doing things would be lost. He wanted to find a way to help people remember these things. 

As part of the settler encroachments Sequoyah fled Tennessee and moved to Georgia where he worked as a Silversmith. Once when a customer purchased one of his works he suggested that he sign his work, like it was usually done by the silversmiths. When the customer Charles Hicks learnt that Sequoyah didn’t know to write he offered to teach him. Sequoyah visited Charles Hicks, who showed Sequoyah how to spell his name and write it in English. Sequoyah was thrilled with the idea which began his long journey into writing in Cherokee.  Then he moved and joined the Cherokee Regiment to fight against the Red Sticks. While he was at the war camp he realized the need of literacy for his people when he saw the settlers using alphabets to write to each other and remember important events while the Cherokee people had no means to communicate. However, the letters and sounds of their language were not the same as the Cherokee language.  

Sequoyah tried many different systems for writing of the Cherokee language. At first he tried pictographs but soon he realized that there were too many symbols. Then he visited a nearby school to watch how children learned to read and write in English. He borrowed spelling books so that he could learn more about how written language worked. He began by noting each of the different sounds or syllables used in the Cherokee language and he gave each syllable its own symbol. Although some of the symbols he used came from the English and Greek alphabets they represented different sounds in the Cherokee syllabary. Talking Leaves, the 86 letters that make up the Cherokee language syllabary was born. 

It took 12 long years of hard work when he finished his syllabary, but the council of Cherokee Indians did not like his work and thought it was witchcraft. Sequoyah tried hard to convince his people that his alphabets were useful. He taught his daughter Ahyokah the syllabary and brought her before the council. Sequoyah had the council give him a message to write down. Then he brought his daughter to read it back to them. The council was amazed, but thought it might be a trick. The council sent four young men from other Cherokee villages to learn the alphabets, and then the council tested each of them to see if they could read messages written by the other young men. This finally the council was convinced that Sequoyah’s system worked. 

The Cherokee people quickly realized how useful the writing system was. It was easy to learn and could be used to share news among all the Cherokee. Within months thousands of Cherokee became literate. By late 1820s, a printing press was created with Cherokee symbols. It was used to print the first newspaper written in the Cherokee language- Cherokee Phoenix. Till date the syllabary has only 86 letters with no changes. What a perfect job! 

Sequoyah’s syllabary helped the Cherokee preserve their history and culture. Today more than 320,000 Cherokee Indians live across the United States. Though they all speak English many still use Cherokee writing. It is an amazing story of a man, not literate in any language, created a system for reading and writing a language and a means of communication for the entire community. There are lots of unsung heroes around the world who have changed history and Sequoyah is truly one among them.


  1. Quote

    Sujatha – Good post. Sequoyah must have been a brave man with conviction, to proceed as he did in spite of strong resistance.

    But – the Cherokees did not have a script till (almost) the dawn of the 19th century? And the concept of writing was so esoteric to them that they thought it was witchcraft?

    Man! Any wonder they were taken over by the invaders? This is what happens when people get caught in a time warp & refuse to progress.

    I’m not justifying what the invaders did. This planet is not populated by Angels. So, everyone should equip themselves as a people, as a nation, as a tribe. If they don’t – well, they also have to blame themselves.

  2. Quote

    Really interesting post Sujatha…

    As great fan of JRR Tolkien ,I find it amazing he was able to invent so many new languages and customs

    But it is equally amazing to know that an illierate as done the same …this guy must have been a genius…

    But its i really sad when victors keep destroying the traces of civiliization…

  3. Quote

    Hmm Yinteresting post, thanks for sharing…

    /*Imagine living in a world where there are no newspapers or books to read. Think of the days when there was no alphabet or script to write or read.*/

    Life would be sad! Then again there are languages that do not still have written form, Imagine a life without an established means of communication , jeez imagine how it would have been when people dint have a language to talk in, Even if there was a primitive conglomeration of ooks, eeks and various others shrieks that would have been so localized, this is so freaky to imagine. 🙂

  4. Quote
    Krishnan said February 8, 2008, 4:39 am:

    That was a fascinating piece ! Goes to show how one individual by dint of his/her efforts can effect a big change in his people’s way of life. Without 3 Rs, it is impossible for any culture to survive the odds. Kudos for this post.

  5. Quote

    ” everyone should equip themselves as a people, as a nation, as a tribe. If they don’t – well, they also have to blame themselves” – what a true statement.
    Even today the illiterate are tricked and made to sign documents with their fingerprints and .

    Thank you, It is true that the world runs around the survival of the fittest law, as priya mentioned if we are not equiped then we will lose.

    Jaskirit, You are right. Life would be sad without books. It so freaks me out to think of a life without Google or wiki nowadays. 🙂

    Krishnan, Thank you for your kind words. As Gandhiji says ” we must be the change we want to see in the world “, Every individual should be ready to take the social responsibility for his actions and do his part so the world would change one day.

  6. Quote

    Wow, what a story Sujatha. I have never heard of Sequoyah or the Cherokee Indian. There are people of spirit and courage in every corner of the world. I think, that what makes mankind so great. Thank for sharing this inspiring story.

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said February 8, 2008, 8:05 am:

    It is a great story. I didn’t realize the cherokees had a script. Sequoyah’s story shows what human endevor is all about. Great post.

  8. Quote


    Great story!! I have also read that, a person who could speak the Cherokee language could learn to read or write in two weeks- amazing!. Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  9. Quote

    ‘Life without Google….’ Scary! Need it even for my son’s first grade projects:-))

  10. Quote

    It is amazing story Sujatha. Sequoyah’s story will be inspiring if I refer this to many NRI Indian friends who seem to be OK if their children cannot speak/write their mother tongue.

  11. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar and Archana

    Hema, Even my daughter has started to google for Dora nowadays…Google -that is the first and last thing i do in my day.

    Vamsi, Please include me in your list of folks with children not speaking\writing their mother tongue.:-)

  12. Quote

    I didn’t know Sequoyah was a real name of a person. In one FRIENDS episode, Rachel and Ross would discuss names for their to-be-born child, and Sequoyah was one of the options. I thought it was a made up name.

    Great post.

  13. Quote

    Thanks for your comment Meenaks.

    A giant redwood tree is named “Sequoia” which is believed to be named after the Sequoyah and also there is a “Toyota Sequoia” van.

Leave a Comment



Formatting Your Comment

The following XHTML tags are available for use:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

URLs are automatically converted to hyperlinks.