Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Great Story about Sequoyah (1776 - 1843) and His Daughter Ayoka

Ayoka and Sequoyah

Writing Cherokee History
THE CHIEFS STARED at Ayoka as she was brought into the room. Was she scared? No, just a little nervous. Was she afraid she would fail? No, she knew her papa had taught her well.
But she also knew the great importance of this meeting. The Cherokee people had been laughing at her papa. Some said that he was under a witch's spell and should be sent away. Ayoka must now do her part to change their minds.
She saw her papa at the other end of the long room, but she knew she must not look at him. The chiefs might think that they were signaling to each other. Soon one of the chiefs whispered to her papa. Her papa made marks on a piece of paper and handed it back. The paper was brought across the room to Ayoka. It was her big moment.
In her strongest six-year-old voice, Ayoka read the markings on the page. For the first time ever, a Cherokee Indian was reading her own language! Everyone gasped. Was this a trick?
The chiefs demanded another test. This time, a chief whispered to Ayoka. She wrote down what he said and then was taken out of the room. Her paper was given to her papa. He stood and proudly read exactly what she had written.
The room buzzed with excitement. In 1821, no North American Indian from any tribe could read and write his or her own language. Could this six-year-old girl really read and write Cherokee? And how did Ayoka's papa, Sequoyah, invent this amazing writing system?
Sequoyah's System
Sequoyah was born around 1770 in Tennessee. When he was young, settlers were taking over his tribe's nation. Cherokee chiefs had signed many treaties to protect their people, but Native Americans still kept losing their rights and land. The Cherokee called these treaties "talking leaves" because they thought the white man's promises dried up and blew away like leaves.
In the early 1800s, Sequoyah moved to a farm in Georgia and became a silversmith. Like most Indians at that time, he could not read, write, or speak any English. He was interested in how white men could talk to each other by making strange marks on paper. If the Cherokee people could read and write their own language, he thought, then they could better communicate and protect their rights. But Sequoyah's tribesmen laughed when he shared his ideas. They said that reading and writing were the way of the white man, not the Indian.
In 1813, he and other Cherokee men joined the U.S. Army. As Sequoyah watched American soldiers write letters home and record the events of the war, he wished that his people could do the same. He grew even more determined.
When Sequoyah returned home, he decided to focus entirely on writing. He stopped doing his farm work and built a small cabin in the woods, away from his people. He began drawing symbols for animals, trees, and other objects on birch bark, using burned sticks as pencils.
Sequoyah's tribesmen did not understand why he spent so much time alone. Many of them thought his writing was a form of witchcraft. Some were so afraid that they burned down his cabin, with all his work inside.
But Sequoyah had struggled with hardships and unkindness before. His father was a white man. Sequoyah was teased as a half-breed, even though he thought of himself as only Indian. He was handicapped with a lame leg and walked with a crutch. No, he would not give up.
He started over. He soon realized that it was not practical to draw a symbol for every word. As he carefully listened to people's speech, he noticed that the same sounds could be combined to make a lot of different words. He created a symbol for each sound and worked until he had 85 symbols that could form any word.
Sequoyah's youngest child and only daughter, Ayoka, spent many hours quietly at his side, watching him work His system was so simple that Ayoka learned to use it in about three days. It had taken Sequoyah twelve very hard years, but now his invention was just right.
His work, however, was not done. Sequoyah still needed to convince Cherokee leaders that his system could help their people. He could not do this alone. So when it was time to present his invention to the tribe, Sequoyah brought Ayoka with him.
A Family's Legacy
No one knows exactly what happened at the tribal council meeting. But after Ayoka's test, the chiefs agreed that Sequoyah's system was very useful. TheCherokee became the first tribe in America that could read and write in their own language. They started the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper in theCherokee language. Cherokee history and songs were recorded and preserved for future generations, and the Bible and other important writings were published in Cherokee.
Sequoyah's tribe honored him with a medal and made him a chief. The giant Sequoia trees in California were named after him, and a Sequoyah statue stands in the U.S. Capitol building. This great man -- handicapped, ridiculed, and uneducated -- dedicated his life to preserving the Cherokee language. Together, Ayoka and Sequoyah proved that written words were not just marks on a page. They were a powerful force that could unite a people.
The Cherokee Syllabary
Instead of learning an alphabet like the white men did, the Cherokee learned symbols for the sounds (syllables) they used in everyday speech. That is why Sequoyah's system is called a "syllabary." Each Cherokee symbol represents a syllable, not just a consonant or a vowel.
For example, ama ("water" in Cherokee) is written with three letters from the English alphabet: a, m, and a. But using the Cherokee syllabary, ama is written with only two characters because the word has two syllables: "a" (written as D) and "ma" (written as #).
By James Gilbertson
Art by Yoshiko Miyake

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Gilbertson, James
Spider. Nov/Dec2012, Vol. 19 Issue 9, p10-14. 5p.
Document Type:
CHEROKEE language
CHEROKEE Indians -- History
Geographic Terms:
In this article, the author discusses the history of Cherokee tribe, which became the first tribe in U.S. that could read and write in their own language.

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