- Utalotsa Woni—“Talking Leaves”A Re-examination of the Cherokee Syllabary and Sequoyah1
In Armstrong Woods, California, I stood with one hand on a giant sequoia, staring up, straining to see the topmost branches as they disappeared into the vault of the sky. The red bark under my palm felt like coarse prickly hair, and the earth was thick and springy beneath my feet. The sacred silence was broken only by the whispered prayers of countless voices in the wind through the boughs. The scent of spicy soft pine filled the air, and light filtered down through the branches, like sun through stained glass.
From childhood I had accepted as fact that the great sequoias were named for the Cherokee man Sequoyah, who had introduced the syllabary to many of my ancestors. Subsequently my academic training taught verification of all information, so I began an investigation into the history of how the sequoias were named. I discovered that the coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, was named in 1847 by botanist Stephen Endlicher. Several authors have varying hypotheses concerning the origin of the name sequoia, and one of these theories links this name to Sequoyah, the Cherokee inventor of the syllabary. However, other sources dispute this possibility based upon the fact that nowhere in Endlicher’s writings is there any indication that he was aware of the man Sequoyah (Hartesveldt et al. 180). Was Endlicher aware of the existence of Sequoyah and thus named the sequoias after him, or is the similarity between the two words merely coincidence? I realized that it was impossible to discern the truth.
However, that doesn’t indicate that I can’t discern the Truth; the [End Page 47] use of capital T implies a truth that goes beyond facts. In Cherokee, the word duyugodv means “truth,” but it also implies righteousness, honesty, and uprightness.2 The English word truth can also contain these implications, but it can further signify “facts.” Furthermore, the Cherokee word duyugodv implies a moral responsibility, whereas the concept of the English word truth does not always equate with justice. In Cherokee, duyugodv is the kind of truth that transcends facts. Moreover, duyugodv is the kind of truth that we hear in our stories, the “moral” of the story, which isn’t dependent on verifiable factual information.
The Truth in this situation is that, whether or not Endlicher knew about Sequoyah, there is something about these trees that makes people think of Sequoyah. I realized that the Truth behind the mystery had nothing to do with the name sequoia. Instead, it had to do with the characteristics of the trees themselves. Their Latin family name, sempervirens, means “ever-living”; the tree earned this name not only because of its longevity, but also because it survives catastrophic events like floods and fires. Even when the tree is cut down, the trunk will sprout (Becking 2). Knowing this makes the Truth clear to me. Whatever the origin of their name, sequoias are as strong and enduring as the Cherokee people and our language.
In the following pages, I attempt to discern the Truth, the duyugodv, about Sequoyah and the syllabary. I do not attempt to discern facts concerning Sequoyah, because “virtually everything about this remarkable man is controversial” (Conley, Cherokee Thoughts 167). That is not to say that I won’t look at the details of Sequoyah’s life, or the varying accounts of those details. My goal is to find the Truth by examining the overlapping accounts, comparing to find common themes, to reach the “heart” of the story. In the process, I examine a variety of forms of evidence from oral traditions to written accounts about Sequoyah. I give higher credence to oral traditions, for most of the oral stories were passed down by people who knew Sequoyah or who are his descendents.3 Truth is the central goal of the oral stories, even though the facts differ. They all work to preserve the Truth, the duyugodv.
I also examine the syllabary to discern its Truth. The facts concerning [End Page 48] the syllabary, beginning from the time of its revelation, are relatively undisputed, especially compared to the details...