A copy of the Cherokee Phoenix from 1829.

Native History: Inaugural Edition of ‘Cherokee Phoenix’ Published

Alysa Landry

Because of the Phoenix, the Cherokee saved their language and preserved a written history of events. But none of that would have happened without a man named Sequoyah, who invented the written Cherokee language.

Also known as George Gist or George Guess, Sequoyah was born in Tennessee sometime between 1760 and 1780, Tankersley said. A skilled blacksmith, silversmith and engraver, Sequoyah wanted a way to sign his name on his work.

By 1809, Sequoyah was working on a written syllabary—or a symbol for every Cherokee word. He soon turned to phonetic symbols that represented the 85 distinct syllables in the Native language.

Charles Banks Wilson, 'Sequoyah'

“In order for a language to be written, spoken words have to be encoded in written symbols so that another reader can accurately recreate those spoken words,” Tankersley said. “For most cultures around the world, this process gradually evolved over thousands of years. Sequoyah accomplished in a matter of years what took others thousands of years to develop.”

The syllabary was complete in 1821 and tested among the people. Within months, the entire Cherokee Nation was literate, “without a single schoolhouse or teacher,” Tankersley said.

By 1825, the symbols were ready for print and the tribe officially adopted them as the official written language. The symbols, deeply rooted in the Cherokee creation stories and sometimes based on Arabic letters, actually resemble traditionally significant images, Tankersley said.

For example, the symbol for the syllable “ya” resembles a rock shelter behind a waterfall, and the symbol for the syllable “hu” looks like a tomahawk.

Those symbols still are printed in the Cherokee Phoenix, which now is a monthly publication that continues to offer news and feature stories in Cherokee and English, said Bryan Pollard, the newspaper’s executive editor.


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