1770 started as a common year, beginning on a Monday. That year, British explorer Captain James Cook was the first white man to reach Australia. On the other side of the globe, fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette had just arrived at the French court, and Lexell’s Comet became the closest comet to ever pass by earth. In a decade of extraordinary events including the American Revolutionary War, Natives American tribes would witness great upheavals and profound cultural changes. 1770 or thereabouts also marked the birth of a Cherokee named “Sequoyah,” near the modern-day town of Vonore, Tennessee. His English father was George Guess, or Gist. This mixed blood Cherokee grew up to become the renowned Cherokee artist, warrior, diplomat and inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. Sequoyah’s accomplishments are now legendary, almost mythic, among not only the Cherokee people, but across America.
While much is known about Sequoyah’s many accomplishments, very little is known about the man himself. The greatest mystery is not how he created the Cherokee syllabary, but rather the details of his final journey to Mexico and the circumstances surrounding his death. Sequoyah had spent much of his life living outside the boundaries of traditional Cherokee homelands. Why would an aging Cherokee risk his life to travel to Mexico and bring back Cherokees into the Cherokee Nation?
Searching for Sequoyah spans two countries and three Cherokee nations, leading viewers on a journey through the life and death of Sequoyah; his repeated travels from east to west, and his final expedition where he hoped to reunite the “Mexican Cherokee” with the Cherokee Nation after their 1830-35 removal to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. In Searching for Sequoyah viewers will discover him through the written language he created for the Cherokee people, through his descendants, on old cave wall writings in the Southeast, in modern books, in Cherokee art and even on a Smartphone app – woven throughout the fabric of history. As Cherokee scholar and author Daniel Justice has said, “In some ways, the search for Sequoyah is really a search for us.”
Sequoyah spoke no English, only Cherokee. Cherokees came to him for silver engravings, drawing out what they wanted etched in the silver. Though illiterate in English, he was a natural genius and recognized that what they wanted him to copy was their “written” language. He quickly became determined to give his Cherokee people the power of a written language – what he called “talking leaves.” In 1808, he began secretly working on a writing system. Some people thought he was crazy. Others thought he was 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. The Cherokee National Council adopted the system officially in 1825. It was the only indigenous writing system north of Meso-America.
Little is known about Sequoyah, the man himself. The historical record of Sequoyah’s death is also scant. Some accounts say that he died in Mexico among the Cherokee and was buried there. In 1903, a skeleton was discovered in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. Physical evidence strongly indicated that it might have been Sequoyah’s. Did he perish on the return journey to his home in Indian Territory or did he in fact die in Zaragoza, Mexico, leaving behind a son and other Cherokees? Why did Sequoyah’s obituary appear in a Kansas newspaper twenty years after his “reported” death in the Wichita Mountains? Another letter in the archives supports that he died in a house in Zaragoza, Mexico. If Sequoyah’s descendants lived there for several generations and survive today, what stories might they have to share?
Searching for Sequoyah relies on our on-camera narrator Joshua Nelson, Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, and an enrolled Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, to guide viewers along the journey and mysteries of Sequoya. Similar in style to how the successful PBS series Finding Your Roots uses Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to lead “characters” and viewers on a semi-guided journey, Joshua will investigate the little-known mysteries of Sequoyah’s life and death. Joshua also happens to be researching his own genealogy, and recent discoveries point to none other than Sequoyah. Joshua’s personal exploration of his own connection to Sequoyah adds another dimension to his role. Sometimes these on-camera “discussions” will be informal sit-down interviews, sometimes in groups, and sometimes in a more loosely structured “walk-and-talk” style.
We will also employ the use of standard formal interviews with leading Sequoyah historians, representatives from the three Cherokee Nations, our main characters who include Sequoyah’s descendents, and an abundance of archival material. We will also shoot stylized imagery depicting the syllabary itself, as well as visual reenactments symbolizing the pre-photography era in order to represent Sequoyah’s travels. We will also use aerial drone footage covering large swaths of the land over which he traveled. In addition, Joshua’s voice over narration will add his own personal insights into the complex history of Cherokee culture, language, identity and Sequoyah’s enduring legacy.
Our film uses a three-act structure. We open with a short film montage of the major locations in Sequoyah’s life journeys: from Tennessee where he was born to the Great Smoky Mountains of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, to the Old Settlers territory in Arkansas, to the relocated Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, to Zaragoza, Mexico where he hoped to reunite the Mexican Cherokees, and finally to the Wichita Mountains where his body was supposedly found in 1903. Joshua Nelson’s voiceover begins our journey as we search for Sequoyah.
Set in North Carolina and Tennessee, we visit Sequoyah’s birthplace and link the Cherokee syllabary to ancient cave writings only six miles away. The caves show how southeastern Natives communicated with symbols on cave walls during the Mississippian era. When Sequoyah invented a new writing system, the symbols on cave walls were adapted to include letters and characters forming his syllabary.
Western Carolina University professor and Sequoyah scholar Brett Riggs agrees with many people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that cave writings are important historically to the many uses of the Cherokee Syllabary. For example Jeff Marley, Director of the Nantahala School of the Arts in Bryson City, NC is publishing books in the Cherokee syllabary typeface in the material and artistic traditions of the nineteenth-century typeface of the old Cherokee newspapers The Phoenix and The Advocate. Marley demonstrates how the Cherokees historically created a variety of uses for the Cherokee syllabary, including the printing presses. The early adoption of the printed syllabary dramatically impacted the lives of the Cherokee people.
Set in Tahlequah, Oklahoma the seat of the Cherokee Nation, we begin with a discussion among five lineal descendants of Sequoyah in conversation with Joshua Nelson. We use these conversations as a jumping off point to introduce viewers to Sequoyah’s modern-day family and his influence among the Cherokee. We delve into the specifics of each descendant’s “connection” to Sequoyah, such as Sequoyah Guess. Guess is a direct descendant of Sequoyah and a traditional Cherokee from the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. He’s fluent in Cherokee, a novelist and a storyteller. Relying on local oral traditions and stories, he offers a surprising counter-narrative to many aspects of what is generally believed to be the “official” story of Sequoyah.
Also in Tahlequah, we examine the contemporary challenges facing the survival of the Cherokee language and how the syllabary and technology are coming together to preserve and expand fluency among the Cherokee people. Roy Boney Jr, Cherokee Nation citizen and Manager of the Cherokee Language Program picks up where Jeff Marley’s printing presses left off. Roy and Joshua take viewers through a guided history of the technological adaptations of the syllabary from 19th-century printing presses to 21st-century smartphone apps. Joshua also introduces viewers to another “modern-day Sequoyah” named Candessa Tehee of the Cherokee Nation, whose leadership at the Cherokee Heritage Center & Museum has played a prominent role in preserving the Cherokee language and celebrating the life of Sequoyah. Nearly 200 years later, despite the Cherokee language decline among the Cherokee people, Sequoyah’s legacy to connect Cherokees through a living language continues.
Act 3 focuses on Sequoyah’s final journey to San Fernando, Mexico (now Zaragoza) to reunite the Mexican Cherokees with the recently removed Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Our on-camera guide Joshua will bring some of Sequoyah’s descendants along for the journey. First, Joshua and his entourage travel to Zaragoza, Mexico where Sequoyah’s daughter-in-law and the other Mexican Cherokees were living in 1841. From Zaragoza they will travel to Eagle Pass, Texas to the Mexican Kickapoo community in search of Sequoyah’s descendants who joined with the Kickapoo in order to survive. They will meet with Kickapoo elders that still hold the stories of the Mexican Cherokees from the 1841-1843 era. From there our story returns to Oklahoma, to the Wichita Mountains where Joshua, along with our main characters, explore the cave where Sequoyah may have died. In addition, the three will reflect on any recent “discoveries” they made regarding Sequoyah’s life and death.
The film concludes with resolutions to our main characters’ story arcs, while they reflect on all they learned about Sequoyah’s life, his accomplishments, and how their own lives and futures are intricately tied to their ancestor and 19th-century Cherokee Renaissance man. In the event we conclusively prove where Sequoyah died and is buried, our final scenes will present this information to the three Cherokee Nations’ tribal councils and conclude the film with what will surely be a dramatic cliffhanger for the Cherokee people – what to do with this discovery? As Candessa Tehee states: “Wouldn’t it be nice to bring him home?”