Fun fact: I’m not named after a tree. Nor am I named after a popular large SUV. I, like a great many other folks, am named after a person far cooler than I will ever be. Sequoyah was a Cherokee silversmith who lived from 1770 to 1843 who accomplished something pretty unreasonably awesome. He created, from scratch, the Cherokee written language. Prior to Sequoyah’s work, the Cherokee language was completely oral. Yet the Cherokee were far from a primitive people. They had towns, economies and infrastructure, but no way of recording their language. This crazy dude took it upon himself to parse out all the different sounds of the Cherokee language and create corresponding symbols. His work on the Cherokee syllabary started in 1809, and in 1825 it was officially adopted by the Cherokee Nation. Soon after, the Cherokee had a higher literacy rate than their European-American neighbors, and it is estimated that Sequoyah’s syllabary led to the creation of 65 other written languages world-wide.
So, when I saw the Daily Mail had written:
In a rare discovery in Alabama, scientists have stumbled upon a set of cave inscriptions that are thought to be written in the ancient Cherokee language.
I had myself a good old chuckle. That’s like calling Frankenstein (published in 1818) a story written in “ancient English”—although that might be more accurate considering Sequoyah hadn’t even finished inventing the Cherokee written language when Frankenstein was published.
But that’s neither here, nor there. What’s important is that researchers have found a cave in Alabama with Cherokee writing carved into the stone, dating to 1828. With the help of Cherokee scholars they’ve been able to translate the writing, revealing for the first time some of the spiritual and cultural practices of the not-so-ancient Cherokee.
Known as Manitou Cave (a name which does not come from the Cherokee), the cave is in the area formerly known as Willstown, Alabama, the very town where Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary. The caves around this area had long been used for spiritual practices by the Cherokee, but until now the nature of those practices were unknown. Even more interesting, some of the writing was likely put there by Sequoyah’s son Richard. One of Sequoyah’s names when dealing with white Americans was George Guess, and some of the writing on Manitou cave is signed by a Richard Guess. For obvious reasons, researchers believe that this was Sequoyah’s son.
According to the paper published in the journal Antiquity, the writing is a commemoration of a game of stickball, a Cherokee sport similar to Lacrosse. Stickball has a great deal of cultural and spiritual significance to the Cherokee. Games are part of multi-day ceremonies and festivals, of which the game itself is but the publicly observable part, symbolizing the spiritual renewal of the individual and the community.
Prior to the game, however, the players are brought into seclusion by elders and have to undergo a process of purification and sanctification, involving meditation, prayer, communing with ancestral spirits, and ceremonial bathing in the sacred waters found in the caves like the Manitou caves.
It’s this process of spiritual preparation that the writings on Manitou cave commemorate. Part of the spiritual preparation was communing with and invoking the spirits of ancestors. Some of the writing found includes statements like “I am your grandson,” likely a direct message to the spirit of an ancestor. Interestingly, some of these more esoteric or religiously significant inscriptions were written to the “Old Ones,” and inscribed backwards on the stone, as if meant to be read by someone looking out from the walls of the cave.
Curiously, these writings to the “Old Ones” were written high on the ceiling of the cave, far out of the reach of a person. The researchers suggest that scaffolding or ladders might have been used, but note that there was no archaeological evidence of anything of the sort. They quote a modern Cherokee named Tom Belt’s cryptic comment on the matter:
A long time ago people could do things that people today cannot. These people would have been extremely powerful and able to perform seemingly impossible feats such as flying. That we can’t get up there doesn’t mean that they couldn’t.
At the end of the day, the significance of these writings are far more than a simple game of stickball. These are writings from some of the first writers of one of the most modern written languages, during the build up to the all-but-complete annihilation of their society and way of life. Only a few short years after this game of stickball, the Cherokee were forcibly marched away from their ancestral home in one of the most unequivocally wretched and barbaric acts ever perpetrated on another group of humans: the Trail of Tears. These writings stand as a snapshot of a culture that America’s manifest destiny did everything in its power to put down, and it should be remembered that it almost succeeded—but not quite. The Cherokee and the other indigenous tribes of America are not an ancient disappeared culture, but one that lives, against all odds, to this day.
The other significance, of course, is that maybe I won’t get asked if I’m named after an SUV anymore. But that’s just wishful thinking.