Book Review: Sequoyah’s Gift

Sequoyah’s Gift:  A Portrait Of The Cherokee Leader, by Janet Klausner

Given the importance of Sequoyah as one of the most notable figures in American Indian history, as well as the only known inventor of an alphabet (technically a syllabary in this case) in human history, it would make sense that plenty of books would be written about him.  As someone of part-Cherokee ancestry myself, although it would not be obvious to anyone [1], I found a great deal of this book to be of interest.  As a whole, I found this to be a thoughtful and sober work of history, one where the author admitted problems such as limited sources and a difficulty in knowing the motives and thoughts of Sequoyah or even all of the pertinent details of his complicated and dramatic life.  This book deserves a lot of credit for stating the facts, such as we know them, honestly, and in giving at least plausible and fair-minded views of his behavior where it can be inferred from what is known or recorded.  That counts for a lot in a world where imagination and rank political bias is considered as an acceptable part of history aimed at young audiences.

As might be expected, the author hits the high points of Sequoya’s life in about 100 pages, beginning with the author’s refreshing and frank admission of the paucity of sources about his life and ending with some thoughtful suggestions on places to visit that were important to the subject’s life.  The author shows Sequoyah as a complex figure, whose rejection of European ways was combined with skill in crafting silver as well as creating a syllabary for his people’s complicated language, ensuring its survival and its legitimacy as the language of a civilized people.  It shows Sequoyah as being a peacemaker but also as a warrior, as someone concerned enough to gather the Cherokee together and seek out lost Mexican bands of his people but also someone who signed a treaty selling land that he had settled on with some “Old Settlers” in what is now Arkansas, and someone who managed to build a coalition of Old Settlers and those who had opposed the treaty of New Echota led by John Ross.  All in all this book manages to do justice to its complicated subject, demonstrating the essential ambivalence that Sequoyah and many others like him exhibited in a period of great change and turmoil for the Cherokee people.

This book can be praised for not whitewashing Sequoyah, as unpleasant a metaphor as that may be.  Sequoyah struggled with alcoholism, he had two marriages fail, and on several occasions he had to deal with tensions after having been thought a traitor to his people.  This book does not minimize those difficulties or the complexities of his life, and in placing a dramatic life in the most full and accurate form possible, the author of this book reminds us of the complexities and tensions and even contradictions of our own life.  There is much to learn about how Sequoyah managed to draw insight from the wider world around him, in how an unlettered but observant and deeply thoughtful person was able to influence the course of his people’s history by giving them a language system of their own, one that admirably represented their own language in an authentic and worthwhile way.  As someone who finds language deeply important, I find Sequoyah’s achievements to be immensely worthwhile, and I find the complexity of his life something I can understand all too well from an understanding of myself as a similarly complicated person.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Sequoyah’s Gift

  1. Pingback: Fauxcahontas Strikes Back | Edge Induced Cohesion

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