8 September 2022
Each year as the leaves just begin to change in Vonore, Tennessee the “Great Island Festival” celebrates the history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
There have been over 31 annual Cherokee Fall Festivals so far and they occur usually on the 2nd weekend in September, from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm each day. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is Tennessee’s only tribally-owned museum and they host the event each year. Last year’s Festival’s theme was called “Out of the Ashes”.
Who was Sequoyah and Why is There a Museum in his Name?
Sequoyah was born around 1776 in Tuskegee, Tennessee to a Cherokee mother and European father. He was raised by his mother in the Cherokee tribe. As a young man, he was injured in a hunting accident and afterwards became a silversmith. He married a Cherokee woman and had children.
Although he did not speak English, Sequoyah was fascinated by the white man’s ability to write letters and that this communication enabled the transmission of information over great distances. He called them “talking leaves”.
In 1809, Sequoyah started creating a simple Cherokee alphabet with symbols that would make words. He and his daughter, Ayoka, would play games using the symbols. Over the years, Sequoyah became obsessed with developing a new Cherokee alphabet writing system because he knew it could help his people.
Sequoyah eventually created a simple Cherokee alphabet consisting of 86 symbols. In 1821, he introduced the alphabet to the Cherokee council and it quickly caught on.
Sequoyah’s Syllabary helped thousands of Cherokees become literate within a few months after it was introduced in 1821.
Visitors to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum will experience the life of the man Sequoyah – as a father, a soldier, a silversmith, a statesman and the creator of the Cherokee writing system. The center of the story will be the personal quest of Sequoyah’s single-minded concentration on solving the mystery of the “talking leaves.” He spent years in near isolation, facing down tribal suspicion, enduring family rebellion and social derision. Believing – almost alone – that he could create a written language for the Cherokee.
What is the Importance of Sequoyah’s Contribution?
Sequoyah will be the only person, not literate in any language, that was ever known to have invented a whole alphabet and perfected a system for reading and writing a language. He used it to record the history of his tribe and the Cherokee Native Indians used the alphabet to communicate in writing.
In 1838, Sequoyah walked with his people in The Trail of Tears which was ordered by Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed a president to exchange lands with Native tribes, forcing the Cherokees to leave. Those that escaped the removal and hid in the mountains now comprise the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
At the yearly Great Island Festival, visitors have the opportunity to step back in time to experience Native American food. Cherokee arts and crafts will be demonstrated, as well as traditional music and dance. Other on-site demonstrations include a blacksmith in his shop and displays showing what a Cherokee’s life was like in the 1700’s as well as a Civil War encampment. Each day there is usually a Civil War battle re-enactment.
How to Find More information about the Cherokee Fall Festival.
The annual Festival events are funded by organizations such as the Tennessee Arts Commission Rural Arts Program Grant, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
If you would like more information about the next Great Island Festival, visit the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum or call (423) 884-6246.