Review of Jan F. Simek et al., “The Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52) Revisited: The Archaeology of the Cherokee Syllabary and of Sequoyah in Kentucky,” American Antiquity 84(2), 2019, pp. 302-316.
I don’t know the whole story behind the statue contributed in 1917 by the state of Oklahoma to the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. But I have some questions about it. Why does it portray Sequoyah, who was an American Indian, as a white man? Why is he holding a book if he was illiterate? Why–not to put too fine a point on it–does Sequoyah appear so different from all the other accounts about him during his lifetime?
The myth of Sequoyah has become a cottage industry in Oklahoma and North Carolina these days. It is encouraging that governments—whether tribal, state or federal—still have something called public history and continue to promote heroes of the past. We are concerned, however, that American Indian history has become dangerously idealized and fantastical.
An illustration of this tendency is a recent article in the journal American Antiquity referring to Sequoyah as a “Cherokee scholar.” Encyclopedias have taken to dubbing the uneducated son of the southern colonial frontier a “polymath.” This is akin to describing Crazy Horse as a Lakota Sioux templar knight or Chief Joseph as an American Indian Caesar.
In the article I just mentioned, we read Sequoyah was a “Cherokee scholar, artist, and inventor…born in the heart of the Cherokee heartland in East Tennessee in the eighteenth century…[who] sometime in the first quarter of the nineteenth century…developed an entirely new writing system for the Cherokee language.” The startling invention was “intelligible only to Cherokee speakers…literacy became widespread… [and] facing forced removal from their ancestral homelands by the United States government, the Cherokee Syllabary was immediately a source of pride and cohesiveness…. For Cherokees, Sequoyah became a symbol of their unity and perseverance as they faced the Trail of Tears and the suffering and indignities that followed…From that time until the present day, Sequoyah has been revered as a giant of Cherokee innovation, intellectual achievement, and cultural identity.”
The perpetrators of these fairy tales include, among others, “an Anglo-American archaeologist (Simek), a Cherokee scholar of tribal history (Reed) and a Cherokee language specialist (Belt)… [who] worked extensively with United States Forest Service archeaeologists.” They began by revisiting a 2011 article published in “the prestigious archaeological journal Antiquity” … by Rex Weeks and Ken Tankersley entitled “Talking Leaves and Rocks That Teach: The Archaeological Discovery of Sequoyah’s Oldest Written Record.” Its “historical importance…was obvious, and the announcement of these findings generated worldwide interest and commentary.”
Weeks and Tankersley were plainly wrong about everything, as I wrote in my book Old World Roots of the Cherokee a decade ago. Half the American Antiquity article is devoted to proving that the samples of petroglyphs and inscriptions in question cannot be those made by Sequoyah (I never thought so either) and are not in the Cherokee language or writing system anyway (no, they’re in another language or other languages, read on). They are “Euro-American signatures overlying an important but very damaged set of much older pre-contact Native American line-and-grove petroglyphs”( p. 303, not really, keep reading). The evidence “has never been completely described in print” (except in the entire chapter I devoted to it in my book), but “we do not believe [it] supports the notion that Sequoyah had white relatives in Kentucky whom he visited there at the time required for him to have authored those petroglyphs.” Again, that word “white.”
The Cherokees had very little, if any, presence in Kentucky after the American Revolution, claims Creek Indian historian Richard Thornton. They only occupied some small villages in the extreme southeastern corner prior to then. A 1715 map by John and Richard Beresford is the first map to even mention the Cherokees and the last one to show them living in present-day Kentucky and Virginia. The land that they ceded first to the Transylvania Company and later to the United States was never theirs to give away. It belonged to the Chickasaw and Shawnee.
Until 1785 what is now northeast Alabama and the portion of northwest Georgia north of the Coosa and Coosawattee Rivers (in other words, the area where Sequoyah interfaced with missionaries and supposedly finalized a syllabary around the Brainerd Mission outside Ft. Payne) was Chickasaw Territory and in the state of Georgia. The first official map of the State of Georgia in 1785 proves this. Principal Chief Pathkiller established what he thought would be the Cherokee capital at Turkeytown (now Alabama) in the mid-1790s. The village was founded in 1788 by Chief Little Turkey as a refuge for non-hostile Cherokees during the Chickamauga-Cherokee War. Until then there were very few Cherokees living in either northeast Alabama or Kentucky. Pathkiller was told about an agreement between George Washington and Georgia in which Georgia was promised that the Cherokees would be out of the present boundaries of Georgia by 1805.
Now Who’s Lying?
Before American Antiquity’s Sequoyah is fully canonized as the Disney version of himself, a few objections . . . .
Tell Them They Lie, by Traveller Bird (Los Angeles: Westernlore, 1971) poked holes in the Sequoyah myth many years ago and presented an alternative history of the syllabary. Susan Kalter, “’America’s Histories’ Revisited” evaluated the Sequoyah descendant’s claims (American Indian Quarterly, 2001:25:329-62). Harvard professor Barry Fell thought the Cherokee syllabary a Bronze Age, East Mediterranean writing system and went so far as to term it Linear C (Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 4/77, 1977, pp. 1-134). The epigrapher Gloria Farley recognized and reported an early instance of it in the Possum Creek Stone, now in the permanent collection of the Kerr Museum in Poteau, Oklahoma.
Farley’s four-character inscription is apparently the legend on a large pedestal. It was read as ancient Greek, transliterated and translated by Donald Yates (one of the authors of this article review) in consultation with Brian Wilkes, a Cherokee language instructor. It says, HO-NI-KA-SA, “This is the one who has taken the prize of victory” (Donald N. Yates, Old World Roots of the Cherokee, Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, p. 131). The winners in Greek athletic contests were crowned on such pedestals. The ceremonial approach-ways leading to shrines and sports arenas were lined with statues of former champions standing atop such bases. For similar inscriptions on Greek vases and stone, see Panos Valavanis, trans. Dr. David Hardy, foreword by Sir John Boardman, Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004, 110, 126, 146, 374.
The stone was dressed and scored apparently with metal tools and otherwise prepared for epigraphy. Erosion and spalling of the monumental piece indicate an extreme age. The method of inscribing the symbols by pecking would seem to point to their production by indigenous inhabitants in the immediate locale. Such a 300 pound artifact could not have traveled very far. It would have taken a team of men to lift or put it into place. These were not casual visitors to pre-historic Oklahoma.
There are also old, if not ancient, inscriptions in the Cherokee syllabary in North Carolina. See the report by R. B. Myers and photograph in “Tanith in N.C.,” Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 18, 1989, 259.
Another panel of Cherokee, clearly historical-era, came to light recently in north Alabama (“Talking Stones: Cherokee Syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama,” Journal of Antiquity 93/368, April 2019).
Epigraphy to the Rescue
The Red Bird Cave “petroglyph” is the focus for both the 2011 and present article in American Antiquity (p. 304). But it is actually neither an example of the Cherokee writing system nor an instance of “Euro-American” nineteenth-century graffiti. The upper half is an inscription in Greek (which reads from left to right) and the lower line, much more deeply incised and ostensibly older, is in the Hebrew language and alphabet. It reads from right to left.
Klaus Hallof, a German epigrapher who heads a world-heritage project at the Berlin Academy of Sciences to publish all the inscriptions of ancient Greece (Inscriptiones Graecae, IG, since 1827), recognized the upper part as Greek. “We think we can discern the word TOPOS,” he wrote to one of the authors of this article review in 2007. “That suits the context extremely well in that it means, ‘This is the place of…’ It would be expected that there would also be a name above TOPOS in the genitive case. TOPOS inscriptions are a widespread occurrence in Greek epigraphy. According to the letter forms (sigma has the form [ ), the inscription belongs in high or late Augustan times, i.e. 2nd-3rd century after Christ (Yates, p. 130).” Possibly, the upper Greek portion is a calque of the lower inscription in Hebrew. If this is the case, it was made by Greek-speaking, Greek-educated people who also knew Hebrew—a perfect description of Jews from Hellenistic times to Late Antiquity.
The Red Bird rock-group reportedly includes other Greek inscriptions as well as Old Arabic, American Ogam (i.e. without vowels) and South Semitic. A rich sampling of many different cultures and time periods is scattered about a region marked by the heavily trafficked trail running through it called the Great Warrior Path.
According to Bird, the Cherokee writing system had been used by the Cherokee (whom he calls Talagi) since 1483 and before. The Sequoyah family apparently preserved a cache of documents. “The ‘source’ of what I have written comes from more than six hundred documents written by George Guess [a variant spelling of Gist and Guest] himself on thick ruled ledger books, small leather-bound note books, scraps of paper, edges of early eighteenth and nineteenth century newspapers, white buckskin, corn shuck paper, and mulberry and cedar bark. It comes from the mass of writings by his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren . . . .” (Traveller Bird, 143).
An overlooked fragment of the Cherokee syllabary appears in a portrait of a visiting Cherokee chief drawn by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1762 (Alden T. Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 171). This was several years before the supposed birth of Sequoyah. In the portrait, which was prepared for a London gentlemen’s journal and later republished and sold in mass copies as an etching to satisfy Georgian England’s “Indian craze,” five Cherokee characters run down one half of “Ostenaco’s” V-shaped double neck sash, beginning with the character corresponding to the syllable O, and five characters or symbols in another writing system run down the other side. They appear to be embroidered in white thread on dark fabric.
True Spelling and Meaning of Sequoyah’s Name
When the news first emerged linking the Red Bird inscriptions with Cherokee writing, a report in Archeology, the official journal of the American Archaeology Association, as well as one in the New York Times, gave Sequoyah’s name in Cherokee characters in headlines. But it was misspelled. The reason, according to Cherokee language teacher and United Keetoowah Band chief George Wickliffe, is that the famous figure’s name is pronounced with an initial –es or –is sound (interview with Mack Bettis and Donald N. Yates, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, July 30, 2010). A more accurate transcription is Essiquoya. Such a spelling casts doubt on the often-cited etymology from siqua ‘pig’. An analogous word is Issaqueena, the name of a chief’s daughter who befriends the first English settlers near Keowee-Town in South Carolina. An “Essiquoya-signed syllabary” is included in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. See Willard Walker and James Sarbaugh, “The Early History of the Cherokee Syllabary,” Ethnohistory 40.1 (Winter 1993) 70-94 (an important study not mentioned in the present article).
Essiquoya and Issaqueena point to origins in South Carolina where Apalache, Catawba, Spanish and other languages were spoken. Sequoyah’s name could have been Ladino Spanish Cebolla, or Seboya, a pet-name and surname meaning “onion, little nut.” The Cherokee language has no sound for b but substitutes qu. The equivalence is exact. The intertribal sign talk gesture for “onion, smells,” along with a phonetic resemblance (and possibly an allusion to Marranos, a slur for Jews), seems to have led to a spurious connection in Cherokee with “pig.” Issaqueena evidently represented the Cherokees’ pronunciation of the Jewish name Sabina.
Sequoyah was never of Cherokee ethnicity. Only through the permutations of history has he been celebrated as a Cherokee hero. His mother was a half-breed trading post operator from outside Cherokee territory. According to the best accounts, his father was Nathaniel Gist, a Jewish trader and linguister among the variegated and highly mixed Southern Highlands Indians. See Samuel Cole Williams, “Nathaniel Gist, Father of Sequoyah.” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 4 (1932) 39-54. George Lowery [Lowrey], “Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Sequoyah or George Gist/ George Lowery and John Howard Payne,” Journal of Cherokee Studies 2.4 (1977) 385-93. Jean Muir Dorsey and Maxwell Jay, Christopher Gist of Maryland and Some of His Descendants 1679-1957 (Chicago: Swift, 1969). On the Gists, who are officially recognized by Malcolm Stern in his definitive roister of Americans of Jewish Descent, see Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, 137-39).
Mustees, Slaves and Witches
The most common version of the name of Sequoyah’s mother is Wootah or Wutah. That is the West African word for a witch, Gully and Geechee, as Richard Thornton points out. It was quite common for Indian traders like Nathaniel Gist to use Mustee slaves to manage their factor houses in the interior of the Southeast. Mustee is a term in the Lower Southeast for a person of mixed African-Native American ancestry. The Creeks derived the term from the Spanish word mestizo. The dark-skinned, muscular personage called The Raven and visiting London in 1730, as depicted in William Verelst’s Trustees of Georgia painting, has been proved identical with Oconostota, also known as James Beaver/Beamer. He was described as the Mustee son of South Carolina Indian trader James Beamour, a Sephardic Jew, in contemporary records. At the time of the visit, he was an inhabitant of Tellico. Later, he was war chief of Chota. He died after 1809. See Donald N. Panther-Yates, “A Portrait of Cherokee Chief Attakullakulla from the 1730? A Discussion of William Verelst’s “Trustees of Georgia” Painting, The Journal of Cherokee Studies 22:4-20; Yates (2012), 98-105.
Sequoyah adapted an ancient syllabary in currency around 1820. He did not invent one ex nihilo. Missionaries seized on it to print religious tracts and gospel books after 1830. Later it appeared in newspapers and became fixed in font form. There were also various cursive forms based on the older versions. Samples in its long history can be studied from around 200 BCE (Possum Creek Stone) to the 2nd-3rd century CE (Red Bird River Shelter) to Ostenaco’s neck sash in a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1769). The Apalache and others had similar writing systems.
The Cusseta Indians of Georgia used a syllabary that also appears to be ancient and from the Old World. Richard Thornton found the lost original copies of the Creek Migration Legends painted on buffalo for Oglethorpe in 1735 at Lambeth Palace in March 2015. It was Dr. Grahame Davies, Assistant Private Secretary to HRH Prince Charles, he recounts, who determined in 2014 that the Migration Legends were in a wooden box, somewhere in Lambeth Palace, but he told Thornton that he did not have the time to look for it. The assistance of Prince Charles and Dr. Davies eventually, however, resulted in the documents’ discovery, after being lost for 285 years.
Apalache Writing System used in the Creek Migration Legends . Courtesy People of One Fire.
Red Bird Cave entrance inscriptions. Courtesy Phyllis and Billy Starnes.
Possum Creek Stone inscription in Kerr Museum, Poteau, Oklahoma: a) transcribed into modern Cherokee font characters (Yates, 2012), b) transliterated into phonetic values by Yates and Wilkes (2012), c) as reported and photographed by Farley, d) translated into ancient Greek (Yates, 2012), e) translated from Greek into English by Yates. “It was first reported to me in January 1975,” wrote Farley, “by Elaine Flud and her friend Jeanna James, who had slipped and fallen over it near the creek bed. It lay at the edge of the old main channel of Possum Creek, a tributary to Brazeal Creek, the Poteau River and the Arkansas River, near the town of Calhoun. . . . The Possum Creek stone is pecked with four eroded symbols, 3½ to 6 inches tall. They are in a straight line and have mostly curved lines, which is not typical of most [New World pre-historic] inscriptions. The flat stone measures 5 feet long, 30 inches wide, about 5 inches thick, and weighs about 300 pounds.” Gloria Farley, In Plain Sight, vol. II (unpublished manuscript). Farley’s essay on the Possum Creek stone forms a chapter in her book In Plain Sight, vol. II, being published by her executor Bart Torbert. Farley died March 18, 2006. There are no Greek or Cherokee inscriptions in her first volume (Golden: Gloria Farley Publications, 2007). The Greek word nikao “conquer, win” appears in the name of the athletic shoe brand Nike and the Hellenistic statue of the Greek goddess of Victory called the Nike of Samothrace. To credit our interpretation, it also survives in a host of modern Cherokee language derivations, including anetcha “contest, ballplay” (Yates 2012, p. 23), the phrase nikohilunh “he’s playing ball” and place-names like Nikasi (“ball-ground”). Compare Greek teatron “theater, assembly” with Cherokee tetchanun “ceremonial enclosure.” On Cherokee ballplay as an unusual analog to the ancient sports of Classical Antiquity, see David Sansone, Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 50-59, and Yates, 83-4.
Afterlife of the Syllabary
Sequoyah probably never saw the “Sequoyan Syllabary” as we know it today, explains Richard Thornton. What Cherokees use nowadays was created in 1827 by Elias Boudinot, the Cherokee Phoenix editor, and the Rev. Samuel Worcester, a missionary from New England. Sequoyah’s letters were quite different. The authors of the article in American Antiquity should have known this fact. If the Red Bird Cave inscription is an example of the Cherokee Syllabary, it could date from no later than 1828. By that time, Cherokees were living only in scattered slivers of Tennessee and North Carolina and Sequoyah had been living our West for several years.
Ellen Cushman’s “meticulous” The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) unfortunately provides no help regarding the variants and transformation of the syllabary before it reached print.
The widely repeated claim that the Sequoyah Syllabary was used throughout the Cherokee Nation is not true. Even though the Cherokee Syllabary printed version in the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper was free for all Cherokee citizens, there was so little demand for it that Boudinot eventually began publishing the newspaper solely in English.
North Carolina Cherokees never accepted the syllabary. They attempted to execute Sequoyah and his wife on convictions of practicing witchcraft. Although seriously wounded from days of torture, their lives were saved by a troop of Georgia Cherokee Light Horse, commanded by Captain John Ridge. When one of us (Thornton) was a land planning consultant to the Eastern Band of Cherokees in 1976, only a handful of tribal members even knew the syllabary. No one used it. However, that same year, the State Board of Tourism and Humanities Council paid for two teachers to come from Oklahoma to teach classes in this writing system. Soon, it was taught in the Cherokee High School along with a new version of their history, purporting that the Cherokees had lived in North Carolina for at least a thousand years.
Since 1975, the year an ancient specimen of the syllabary was brought to light by Gloria Farley in Oklahoma, both the history of the “Sequoyah Syllabary” and the biography of the “Cadmus and Moses” of the Cherokee people have been recklessly created out of whole cloth. We now have an official manufactured history of Cherokee Indians and others. It will be hard to dismantle.
Try the Cherokee DNA Test for $139.00.
Bird, Traveller, Tell Them They Lie: The Sequoyah Myth, Great West and Indian Series 40, Los Angeles: Westernlore Publishers, 1971.
Carroll, Beau Duke, Alan Cressler, Tom Belt, Julie Reed, and Jan F. Simek, “Talking Stones: Cherokee Syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama,” Antiquity: A Review of World Archaeology 93, 368 (2019): 519–36; https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/talking-stones-cherokee-syllabary-in-manitou-cave-alabama/860758497F5CC21BE060D5A1E73F2205/core-reader.
Cushman, Ellen, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
Dorsey, Jean Muir and Maxwell Jay Dorsey, Christopher Gist of Maryland and Some of His Descendants, 1679-1957, Chicago: J. S. Swift Co, 1969.
Farley, Gloria, In Plain Sight 1, Golden, CO: Gloria Farley Publications, 2007; In Plain Sight 2. Golden, CO: Gloria Farley Publications, to be published by her executor, Bart Torbert.
Fell, Barry, “The Minoan Language – Linear A Decipherment,” Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 4, 77 (1977): 1–54.
Hirschman, Elizabeth and Donald Yates, Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America: A Genealogical History, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2012.
Jett, Stephen C., Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2017.
Kalter, Susan, “’America’s Histories’ Revisited: The Case of Tell Them They Lie,” The American Indian Quarterly 25, 3 (2001): 329–62.
Lowery [sic; Lowrey], George and John Howard Payne, ed. “Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Sequoyah or George Gist,” The Journal of Cherokee Studies 2, 4 (1977): 385–93.
Myers, R. B., “Tanith in N.C.,” Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 18 (1989): 259. Panther-Yates, Donald N., “A Portrait of Cherokee Chief Attakullakulla from the 1730? A Discussion of William Verelst’s ‘Trustees of Georgia’ Painting,” The Journal of Cherokee Studies 22 (2001): 4–20.
Sansone, David, “Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport,” Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.
Simek, Jan F., Beau Duke Carroll, Julie Reed, Alan Cressler, Tomb Belt, Wayna Adams, and Mary White,, ‘The Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52) Revisited: The Archaeology of the Cherokee Syllabary and of Sequoyah in Kentucky,” American Antiquity 84, 2 (2019): 302–16.
Stern, Malcom H., Americans of Jewish Descent. Washington: National Genealogical Society, 1958.
Valavanis, Panos, Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens., tr. David Hardy, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.
Vaughn, Alden T., Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Walker, Willard and James Sarbaugh, “The Early History of the Cherokee Syllabary,” Ethnohistory 40, 1 (1993): 70–94.
Weeks, Rex and Kenneth Tankersley, “Talking Leaves and Rocks That Teach: The Archaeological Discovery of Sequoyah’s Oldest Written Record,” Antiquity: A Review of World Archaeology 85, 329 (2011): 978–93.
Williams, Samuel Cole, “Nathaniel Gist, Father of Sequoyah,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 4 (1932): 39–54.
Yates, Donald N., Old World Roots of the Cherokee: How DNA, Ancient Alphabets and Religion Explain the Origins of America’s Largest Indian Nation, Foreword by Richard Mack Bettis, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2012.