Thursday, September 4, 2014

Critical Review: Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves (a play)

Sequoya and His Talking Leaves: a play about the Cherokee syllabary by Win Coleman and Pat Perrin, illustrated by Siri Weber Feeney (ARC provided by Net Galley, publication date Sept. 5, 2014).

Sequoya and His Talking Leaves is a new play in the "Setting the Stage for Fluency" series and focuses on Sequoyah and the history of his creation and standardization of the Cherokee syllabary, which gave birth to the written Cherokee language. The play is designed for 14 actors and has 10 scenes, plus an Epilogue. No estimate was provided for the length of time the play was designed to run.

After my initial read through of the play, I had several questions and concerns about the way the history was presented. I already had several books on Sequoyah in my classroom library, so I consulted those as well as the official web site of the Cherokee Nation for confirmation. (This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive search of the literature.)

My biggest concern is the representation of other Cherokee in the play, specifically in the roles of the four "conjurors" (defined as magicians in the play's Glossary). The conjurors play the foil to Sequoyah, critiquing his ideas and accusing him of being possessed by a "shee-leh" or evil demon. In the end, they decide that "It must be a good spirit instead" (pg.32), and they agree to learn to read.

The Cherokee Nation's summary of the history of Sequoyah instead explains that Sequoyah and Ayoka were charged with witchcraft and brought before a group of warriors to be evaluated in a sorcery trial. After convincing the warriors with a demonstration, Sequoyah then taught them the syllabary, and they contributed to its spread.

I think that the authors' choice of the term "conjuror" rather than warrior contributes to the portrayal of these characters as ignorant or foolish, as does the use of the specific term "shee-leh" or evil demon rather than the more generic "witchcraft." (A Google/Google Books search for the name Sequoyah and the term "shee-leh" only finds hits within this play, nowhere else in the literature.) Conjuror seems a more pejorative choice of term than magician, and the other sources support the idea that these men were neither.

The play also implies that the conjurors were responsible for burning down Sequoyah's home and destroying his work, but other resources agree that Sequoyah's wife, Sally, along with their neighbors were the ones who set the fire, while the official trial happened later.

A secondary concern is the over-emphasis of the role of Sequoyah's young daughter, Ayoka. I understand the desire to make a child's role more prominent in a play for children, but it seems unlikely that Ayoka was responsible for learning and reporting sounds back to her father. Other sources agree that she was one of Sequoyah's first students but not that she had any role in the creation of the syllabary.


The story of the creation of the Cherokee syllabary is incredible and one that ought to be shared with students, as it represents some of the intelligence and ingenuity of Native American peoples, and serves as a testament to hard work and dedication. This play, however, presents an over-idealized dramatization of Sequoyah and his family set against an over-simplified backdrop of "ignorant natives." If you are interested in sharing the story of Sequoyah with your students, I suggest you seek out other resources. The bilingual book Sequoyah by James Rumford (full citation below) provides a quick picture book version.

Resources Consulted

Klausner, Janet (1993) Sequoyah's Gift: a portrait of the Cherokee leader, Harper Collins Publishers.

Rumford, James (2004) Sequoyah: the Cherokee man who gave his people writing, Houghton Mifflin. Cherokee translation by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby.

Official Web Site of the Cherokee Nation Accessed 8/24/14.

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