The Native American leader and scholar of the Cherokee Nation, Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya) completed his independent creation of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. His achievement was one of the few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system, and his syllabary allowed the Cherokee nation to be one of the first North American Indigenous groups to have a written language.
While his achievements have lived on, little is known about this great American. On Monday, November 1, the documentary Searching for Sequoyah – co-produced by Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature LeAnne Howe – premieres on PBS:
Searching for Sequoyah is the first documentary feature to chronicle the legendary accomplishments and mysterious death of the famed Cherokee visionary, Sequoyah, whose English name was George Guess. While much is known about Sequoyah’s many accomplishments, very little is known about the man himself. The greatest mystery is not that he created the Cherokee writing system, or syllabary, but rather the details of his final journey to Mexico and the circumstances of his death. After removal from their southeast homelands separated some Cherokees as far as Mexico, Sequoyah set out late in life to reunite the Cherokee people in their new capitol, Tahlequah – Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). From Tuskegee, Tennessee to Zaragoza, Mexico – Searching for Sequoyah takes viewers on a journey retracing Sequoyah’s final quest, the mystery surrounding his death and the legacy he left behind.
"So much has happened since we began our “search for Sequoyah,” Howe said. "I'm not talking about locating his bones, but rather finding the essence of the man, discovering more about Sequoyah, his family, and what happened when he made his last journey to Mexico seeking out other Cherokees that had removed there. One of his lineal descendants, Winnie Guess Perdue, traveled with us to Zaragoza, Mexico in search of her ancestor. In this way, our film unites the past and present and brings Sequoyah, the man and his story into clearer focus for viewers and scholars."
Congratulations to Howe and the entire production team for realizing this crucial part of the American history puzzle.
Image: Sequoyah holds a tablet that contains his Cherokee syllabary in this lithograph, courtesy of the Library of Congress.