Reading and writing are magical.
That isn’t just a slogan to encourage your students to read and write—although it can’t hurt! It’s also more true than we may realize or remember.
When I was a small child, three or four years old, I’d watch adults reading—my dad reading a novel, my grandfather a newspaper, my great-grandmother the Bible. I knew they were engaged in something amazing, even magical. The pages were talking to them. I wanted to learn that magic. And I imagined that going to school someday would be like studying wizardry—although Hogwarts hadn’t been founded yet. I couldn’t wait. Perhaps you have similar memories.
Now imagine belonging to a culture in which reading and writing don’t exist. Strangers arrive from outside, toting books and newspapers, sticking their noses into them, seemingly drawing facts, ideas, stories, even songs from them. What would you think?
That’s exactly what happened in the Cherokee town of Willstown, Alabama, in the early 1800s. Cherokee Native Americans were mystified by white people’s newspapers—their “talking leaves.” It took a Cherokee silversmith named Sequoyah to unravel their mystery. Although Sequoyah could neither read nor write, he performed his own magic, creating a system of writing for the Cherokee language. Once the Cherokee came to appreciate Sequoyah’s syllabary (a kind of alphabet devised from syllables), literacy ran rampant among them. Cherokee wrote letters to one another far and wide and founded the first Native-American newspaper.
Throughout human history, no other member of an illiterate culture has accomplished such a feat. Sequoyah’s genius went beyond amazing. But his achievement was hard-won. Medicine men of his own community nearly put him to death for suspected witchcraft. And white missionaries, determined to convert the Cherokee to the English language as well as to Christianity, weren’t pleased that Sequoyah had given his people reason to preserve their own language with newfound pride.
In 2007, I was hired by READ magazine to dramatize Sequoyah’s fascinating and troubled life. You can find “Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves” in my new book Classroom Plays, which includes five plays and 105 Reading Comprehension questions. Author notes and answers are provided in a free downloadable Teacher Guide. See my ChironBooks plays page to find out how to order the book and download the guide.
The following scene is between Sequoyah and his daughter, Ayoka. Although even Sequoyah’s wife, Sally, frowns upon Sequoyah’s quest for “talking leaves,” Ayoka gives him all sorts of help. Historians 1, 2, and 3 serve as the play’s narrators. You can view a short video of my own daughter and me reading this scene on my website.
Historian 1: Ayoka knew about her father’s talking leaves, because she’d been helping him all along.
Historian 2: Every day, she went out and listened to people talk, memorizing the sounds they’d make.
Historian 3: Then she’d go to her father’s hut and repeat them to him, and he would make symbols for them.
Sequoyah: That’s seven sounds you’ve brought today, Ayoka! The most you’ve ever gotten at one time!
Ayoka: And you’ve made marks for all of them. They’re so pretty to look at.
Sequoyah: Do you like going out searching for sounds, daughter?
Ayoka: Oh, yes, it’s a lot of fun—like catching little birds.
Sequoyah: Not birds. And nothing little. We’re trying to catch and tame a much bigger animal—something huge, rare, beautiful, and strong.
Ayoka: And wild?
Sequoyah: Very wild indeed. Our Cherokee language has been running free for—who knows how long? Hundreds of years, maybe thousands.
Ayoka: Why do we want to tame it?
Sequoyah: Why do we want to tame a wild horse? So we can ride it, so it can help us work, so it can be our friend in more ways than we can imagine.
Ayoka: But maybe our language is happy being wild.
Sequoyah: Yes, I’ve wondered that myself. It would be wicked to tame a splendid creature that loves its liberty. Some animals just pine away in captivity.
Ayoka: Like an eagle.
Sequoyah: Or a deer.
Ayoka: Or a wolf.
Sequoyah: Or a bear.
Ayoka: A bear more than anything.
Sequoyah: If you put them in a cage or tie them to a leash and order them about, they grow sad and stop eating and die. But I don’t think our language is like any of those animals.
Sequoyah: It doesn’t run away into the forest to hide from people. It spends all its time among us Cherokee—so much time that we don’t even notice it’s there. It keeps slipping in and out of our lips and ears, just like now, while you and I are talking. I think it wants to be our friend. It wants to learn our ways. But let’s get back to work. Seven sounds, and seven marks! Why, I believe we could get seven times seven words out of these sounds. How many does that come to?
Sequoyah: Very good.
Ayoka: Oh, Father, do you really think we can make that many words out of just seven signs?
Sequoyah: Let’s cut them apart and move them around and see what they can do.