At age four, Ariel (Sequoyah) is sent to a residential school, which robs him of the only language he knows—Tsalagi, or Cherokee. He learns English, but doesn’t entirely forget his childhood tongue. The Last Shade Tree contains transliterated Cherokee words (many of them proper names) and a few complete sentences that are vital to the story.
Foremost Cherokee language expert Harry Oosahwee, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a professor at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, kindly corrected my flailing attempts at choosing the idiomatic words in Tsalagi and doing the transliterations. Professor Oosahwee published his first book, Cherokee Book One for Beginners, in 2013, and was a language consultant for PBS’s American Experience: We Shall Remain, and Mill Creek Entertainment’s The Trail of Tears. He champions children’s immersion courses to preserve this most musical of languages. I wish him well in his new retirement.
Sequoyah (c. 1770 - c. 1843), a non-literate Cherokee originally from Tennessee, single-handedly invented the syllabary, completing it in 1821 after much trial and error. In 1825, the Cherokee Nation officially adopted the ingenious method to teach the reading and writing of its oral language. The result was electrifying: the literacy rate among the Cherokee quickly surpassed that of the American settlers of the region. Soon the laws of the Cherokee Nation and the first newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, appeared in print. Sequoyah yearned to see the members of the Cherokee Nation reunited after they had been widely scattered following Andrew Jackson’s heinous Removal that began in 1830. Sequoyah died far from his home in Oklahoma on a quest to Tamaulipas, Mexico.
The beautifully conceived syllabary remains almost unchanged since its completion in 1821. Some of the eighty-five characters look like Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic letters, but are unrelated in sound. They are organized on the chart horizontally (left to right) in the same order as the Western vowel sounds “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u,” with an additional “v” that has a soft “u” sound as in “sun.” Thus principal character Svnoyi’s name would be pronounced in three syllables: “Su-no-ye.” Vertical reading is alphabetical.
As recognition of Tsalagi’s new vitality, the syllabary may be found among the thirty-plus writing systems installed on the iPhone.