Several months ago, when I was reviewing the novel, “The Secret History of the Cherokees,” I was reminded of the time I spent teaching Cherokee history.
“The Secret History” is a delightful book that is a mix of historical fact and fantasy; the novel treats Sequoyah with something akin to religious respect. While I was working for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee Valley Authority built a museum in Tennessee that was totally devoted to Sequoyah.
It is interesting to note that this museum was constructed after the Tellico Dam controversy, in which the Cherokees lost a lawsuit against the federal agency. The Cherokees had attempted to stop TVA from flooding their sacred burials grounds in Tellico.
It is usually felt that, in an effort to placate the Cherokees and improve their image with the public, TVA gave the Cherokees a tract of land adjoining Tellico and offered to build the museum on Sequoyah’s birthplace. Unfortunately, this specific location was now underwater. Not to be deterred, TVA “rebuilt” the birthplace by dumping an awesome amount of gravel in the designated spot, thereby creating the site of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
In doing research on Sequoyah, I encountered a great deal of contradictary information. Most historians agree that Sequoyah’s father was George Gist (or Guess), a surveyor for George Washington. Sequoyah was born in 1776, but the facts of his childhood are obscure. He is often described as crippled, either due to a childhood illness or to wounds received in Andrew Jackson’s war against the Creeks in 1812. After the war, he developed the idea that the survival of any people was dependent on their possession of a written language. He concluded that the greatest gift he could give his people was a syllabary.
The language that Sequoyah developed (technically, it is a syllabary) has 85 symbols and took 12 years to develop. Assisted by his daughter, he taught his “talking leaves” to his neighbors and had hundreds of them using it within a few months.
Now, this is where the story of Sequoyah becomes interesting.
When word of his accomplishment spread, he received honors, including the silver medal given to him by the Cherokee nation, along with a lifetime pension. Among the honors was a request from Washington to have his portrait painted.
According to the traditional story, Sequoyah had no desire to be painted, especially since he considered himself to be quite homely. In fact, some stories describe Sequoyah as “earless and with a pock-marked face.” According to this “traditional tale,” Sequoyah asked a handsome neighbor to pose in his place. The artist arrived, spent several days painting the famous portrait of Sequoyah, wearing his silver medal, standing tall and handsome, smoking a long-stemmed pipe, holding an illustration of his syllabary. The original is a full-length portrait. Sequoyah wears a colorful turban and holds a staff, with which he is tracking letters in the dust at his feet. This is the only known portrait of Sequoyah and over the years historians have “doctored” the image to give the impression that Sequoyah is seated like an honored statesman or addressing an audience.
When I first heard this story, I found it delightful, but then I received an internet message that suggested that I consult a book entitled, “Tell Them That They Lie.” So, I did that and came up with an unpleasant story, which everyone may read. Simply write the book title on Google, click ,and you will find a much darker version by a an alleged Cherokee named Traveler Bird, who repeats the story of the painting, telling us the handsome fellow is Thomas Maw. He goes on to say that there never was a painting of Sequoyah. He then relates a dark tale in which the famed syllabary was actually “a secret language” created before Sequoyah was born. Although Sequoyah used the syllabary to unite the Cherokees, he was punished by the secret society by having the middle fingers of both hands removed so he could not write; his ears were cut off to mark him as a traitor.
Well, I am a little stunned. Could this be true? Could the painting be a fake? Is the life of Sequoyah that we know a fiction? Did he die, honored as a hero, but for far different reasons? Are the exhibits and artifacts in the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum authentic – or part of an elaborate fiction?