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Searching for Sequoyah

Thursday, December 15, 2016 - 11:41am

Research, history, literature and culture converge in a new film project that includes LeAnne Howe – Eidson Distinguished Professor in the department of English - as writer and producer. Searching for Sequoyah:

In 1808, Sequoyah began working on a system to write the Cherokee language. He worked in secret. Some people thought he was crazy. Others thought he must be practicing sorcery, threading sounds on an invisible symbol. Finally, in 1821, he perfected his syllabary, a symbol set with one character for each syllable in the language—86 of them. He went to the home of his cousin George Lowrey to demonstrate his invention. When Lowrey expressed skepticism, he left. The next day, however, Lowrey went to Sequoyah’s cabin, asking for a demonstration. Sequoyah sent his six-year-old daughter, whom he had taught the syllabary, outside. He had his cousin dictate something to him, which he wrote down in his system. When the little girl returned, she read back Lowrey’s words exactly. George Lowrey became the advocate for the syllabary, and the Cherokee National Council adopted the system officially in 1825. It is the only indigenous writing system north of Meso-America.

One line of inquiry in our research with Cherokee scholars and our characters is to consider whether Sequoyah’s practice of repeatedly walking from Arkansas to North Carolina was a factor is his ability to map a language onto his “talking leaves.” According to environmental studies professor Joe Sheridan, and collaborator Roronhiakewen “He Clears the Sky” Dan Longboat (Mohawk), mapping the environment in the mind was achieved by knowing and embodying the landscape. They write:

. . . sacred ecology of the mind is a consequence of long residence in traditional territory and enduring spiritual and intellectual relationships between people, clans, and landscape . . . . Spiritual and intellectual integrity is achieved on Turtle Island by the interplay of human and more-than-human consciousness. The experience of imagination is minding all things. Minding all things performs the spiritual conservation of all things[i].

The relationship between Sequoyah walking the landscape, his memory-map of the landscape and connection to language and creation of new forms of indigenous literacy is a story line we will follow in Search for Sequoyah.

View the trailer at the link. A fantastic and ambitious project that will fill in some crucial gaps in American history. Congratulations and best of luck to Howe and her colleagues as they work to elucidate more of the richness of our past, present and future.

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