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Living Memorial to a Literate Man : Giant Trees Honor the Creator of Only Indian Alphabet

Charles Hillinger's America

September 08, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SALLISAW, Okla. — Dillard Jordan held several cones filled with hundreds of giant Sequoia seeds that had just arrived in the mail from California.

"I'm going to plant the seeds, keep my fingers crossed and hope some will take hold," said Jordan, 54, curator of the Oklahoma Historical Society's Sequoyah Home Site.

Robert Evans, 46, a professional forester from Fresno, sent the seeds to Jordan after visiting the 10-acre park containing the original log cabin built by Sequoyah, who lived from the early 1770s (his birth date is unknown) to 1843.

The one-room cabin is housed in a stone structure erected by the Work Projects Administration in 1936. It is embraced by manicured lawns off a lonely country road surrounded by farms on the outskirts of Sallisaw in eastern Oklahoma.

During his visit, Evans asked Jordan if any of the trees named after Sequoyah were growing on the grounds. When the curator replied there are none, Evans said he would send him some giant Sequoia seeds as soon as he returned home, which he did.

Sequoyah, whose name is spelled various ways, is perhaps America's most honored Indian.

He was never an Indian chief. But he did something, so far as is known, no other person in history had ever done before or since.

He conceived and perfected an 85-letter alphabet or syllabary for his nation that transformed his people from an illiterate to a literate group.

What makes the story of Sequoyah even more amazing is that he was illiterate at the time, unable to read or write English or any other language.

For that remarkable accomplishment Sequoyah's memory is honored in many ways: Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest in California, Mt. Sequoyah in the Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Largest and Tallest

Sequoiadendron Giganteum or giant Sequoia, the world's largest living things, are named after Sequoyah. So are the world's tallest living things, Sequoia sempervirens , the giant redwoods of the Pacific Coast.

The largest known living tree on Earth is a Sequoiadendron Giganteum , the 3,500-plus-year-old German Gen. Sherman in Sequoia National Park with a height of 275 feet and a circumference at the base of 103 feet. It is so big, 100 five-room houses could be constructed from its lumber.

The tallest redwood structure stretches 362 feet toward the heavens in Humboldt Redwood State Park. The redwood is California's state tree.

In 1905, a convention was held in Muskogee and a constitution was written--and later approved by voters--to form a new state to be called Sequoyah. But the attempt for statehood was premature.

Two years later it did happen but the new state was called not Sequoyah, as originally voted, but Oklahoma, a Choctaw Indian word meaning Red People.

There are schools, streets and buildings named after Sequoyah. The county where he lived in Oklahoma from 1828 to the time of his death carries his name, Sequoyah County.

In Washington, in the Hall of Statuary where each state is entitled to honor its two most outstanding personalities, Oklahoma salutes Sequoyah and Will Rogers, both Cherokee Indians.

Hanging in the Rotunda of Okalahoma's Capitol is Charles Banks Wilson's bigger-than-life painting of Sequoyah wearing a red turban (trademark of the Cherokees of his day), a long-stemmed pipe hanging from his mouth.

He is dressed in a long coat, long shirt, buckskin pants and moccasins and carries a walking stick. He is shown holding a scroll with the 85 letters of the Cherokee alphabet. Behind him in the painting is his log cabin at Skin Bayou on the outskirts of Sallisaw.

There also are statues to Sequoyah in Tulsa, Anadarko and Sallisaw, Okla., and at Calhoun, Ga.

In the Cherokee National Capitol at Tahlequah, Okla., Durbin Feeling, 39, conducts regular classes in reading and writing the Cherokee language in Sequoyah's script.

"We Cherokees have the only Indian alphabet in America, yet, in recent years we have been neglecting this unique treasure. My plan is to get it back in circulation again," Feeling said.

He noted that among today's Cherokees, 60,000 in Oklahoma--most living in 14 counties in the northeastern corner of the state--and 8,500 living in North Carolina, about one-third speak their native language, 15% are able to read it written in Sequoyah's syllabary and only 5% are able to write it using the 85 Cherokee letters.

Feeling instructs potential teachers of the alphabet who then go out into Cherokee villages to teach reading and writing Cherokee in churches, community centers, adult education classes, primary schools and high schools.

During the 12 years he spent creating his alphabet--from 1809 to 1821--Sequoyah came up with a particular letter for each sound in the Cherokee language.

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