Searching for the "Enigmatic Hero" of the Cherokee Language, Sequoyah

Daniel Hautzinger
Cherokee Nation citizen James Greg Bilby as Sequoyah in 'Searching for Sequoyah.' Photo: Karl W. Schmidt
'Searching for Sequoyah' explores the legacy and mysterious life of Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee writing system. Photo: Karl W. Schmidt

Searching for Sequoyah airs Sunday, November 21 at 11:00 am on WTTW and is available to stream.

Sequoyah, the visionary who created the Cherokee writing system despite being illiterate in any other language, looms large in American and American Indian lore. Yet his life is mostly obscure, as there are few records of it. The documentary Searching for Sequoyah explores his legacy and mysterious life through his descendants and a quest to understand his final years. 

WTTW spoke to the film’s director and producer, James Fortier, who is Ojibway; co-producer and host/narrator Joshua B. Nelson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and professor of English at the University of Oklahoma; and producer and writer LeAnne Howe, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and professor of English at the University of Georgia, Athens, about the documentary and Sequoyah's importance to them as Native Americans. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What are the challenges of telling the story of a figure who has become almost more a myth than a man, given the paucity of records about him?

LeAnne Howe: Story comes through family, and I think the Native way is to think about what the family says. So we thought, “We’ve got to find some lineal descendants.” We knew we had to find people who were related and carried those stories.

James Fortier: We thought that if we could bring the descendants into the storytelling itself, that would add a contemporary element that makes Sequoyah’s story come alive in the 21st century, and still be alive in the 21st century. And then of course there’s the whole search [for Sequoyah’s final resting place] in Mexico, which is a great mystery—everybody loves a good mystery. That’s actually the portion of his story that’s the least understood.

My experience telling Native stories through documentaries in the past twenty-some years now is that there always seems to be a starting point where Native filmmakers are at a disadvantage because we have to educate non-Native people about our history and about our contemporary experiences today before we can actually tell this particular story.

Joshua B. Nelson: It’s certainly a challenge [to tell the story of Sequoyah], and the way of meeting that challenge is to embrace it. Taking the mystery itself and moving that to the heart of the structure was. I think, a real stroke of genius on James and LeAnne’s part. It was precisely that kind of narrative approach that helped guide the film and move it along. When you’ve got a guy like Sequoyah who looms so large, to have these additional parts of his story fleshed out was just really enticing.

Growing up, how much did Sequoyah loom in your lives? How much did you know about him?

Fortier: Being raised in the Chicago suburbs, separated from my dad’s culture in Canada, I obviously didn’t grow up surrounded by Sequoyah imagery or mythology. But I do recall learning of his basic story. That kind of stuck with me. And then, as I learned more about my dad’s Ojibway heritage in my thirties, I started doing my own research into not just Ojibway history and culture, but into a broader sense of what’s going on in Indian Country, because as a filmmaker, I wanted to do these kinds of films.

Joshua, in the documentary you say that you have come to admire Sequoyah more than anyone else you have encountered in your scholarship. Why?

Nelson: There’s a personal element. I grew up in small-town Oklahoma, where what we celebrate is football. We don’t celebrate intellectual accomplishments. I was terrible at football, but I was great at reading books. To have this alternative model for the things that we could value, particularly in American Indian worlds, resonated powerfully with me over the years.

And he was always kind of an enigmatic hero. You never learn much more than that he invented the syllabary. We knew that that was a big deal and unprecedented, but it took years working in Native literary studies to really start to appreciate the sweeping significance of that accomplishment.

I think we didn’t know how to talk about how it was a big deal. I think of Einstein as a nice comparison. We know he’s a genius, that he revolutionized the world, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how, not living in the world of gravitational, physical considerations. With Sequoyah, I think it’s not until you get into considerations of how it is that language is sort of the repository of culture and coalesces people politically that we really start to appreciate the significance of his achievement.

What does it mean to you all coming from different tribes and nations, working with a mostly Native production team and having so many Native scholars and people in the film, to tell this story?

Fortier: In every documentary that I’ve done, I strive to bring in as many Native voices in the process of making the film as possible. Because I’m Ojibway and not Cherokee—I’m not even American, I’m Canadian—I wanted to involve as many Cherokees as possible, both in the development of the story and the research but on the set as well. [The animators are Joseph Erb (Cherokee Nation) and Jonathan Thunder (Red Lake Ojibwe), while the music is by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Chickasaw) and Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora).] I just feel that, the more Native voices, even if they don’t have a direct hand in formulating the story, everything combines and the production takes on its own Native characterization.

What aims did you have with the documentary other than “searching for Sequoyah” and telling his story?

Howe: The thing that we talked about pretty consistently is, “What will this film say to American Indians across the country? How will they benefit, and what will it mean?” The answer I tell myself is that American Indians think so many things are dead, because it’s what they’ve been taught in school. My teachers in Oklahoma would say to me as a young person, “Oh, it’s too bad that by the time you’re grown, American Indians will all be dead.” What our film does is speak to the idea that nothing is ever truly dead, and that the people will live on.