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On a day more than two hundred years ago, when the Cherokees were still masters of a large region of the American Southeast, a Cherokee messenger rode through the countryside. He stopped at the farmstead belonging to a woman called Wuh-teh. A small boy was by Wuh-teh's side, listening with an alert face as the rider spoke the news. Something important was happening several miles away in Echota, the sacred town that was the capital of the Cherokees. When the messenger finished explaining, Wuh-teh turned to her son. We will go to Echota, she told him.
When they arrived, they gathered with all the other Cherokees who had heard the message. A delegation from the Iroquois, far to the north, was coming to the town. A peace delegation. Finally there would be peace between the two peoples, after a century of raids and killings. Wuh-teh wanted to witness the event. She wanted her small son to see it with her. Perhaps he would remember the moment.
While the people in Echota waited for the Iroquois delegates to arrive, they talked about what had happened when the delegates crossed the Tennessee River into Cherokee territory. The Iroquois men lost their way, and instead of arriving first at Echota, where no violence was allowed, they arrived at a different town to the south. They came to the cabin of the town chief. He was not at home. But his daughter did what was customary when strangers came by -- she set out food for them. When her father came back, he was astonished to see these enemies in his house. just as they were explaining they were peace delegates, several Cherokee men, armed and ready forbattle, were at the door. The chief managed to stop them from attacking the guests. After the delegates rested, he led them fifteen miles north to Echota.
The boy and his mother listened with interest to the story of the narrow escape. Then they watched as the Iroquois men walked calmly through the town square. The men came to the town house, a huge, circular building with a dome roof. Inside the town house, the Iroquois delegates spoke to the Cherokee people. They told of the peace agreement that had been made several years earlier. They said they had waited until the time was right to make the agreement final, and now that time had come. They had brought with them several belts strung with wampum, cylindrical beads made from shells. The shells were arranged in colored patterns, and the patterns were symbolic -- they stood for meanings.
The boy watched the delegates hold up the wampum belts and explain their importance. He watched as the belts and other tokens of friendship were passed into Cherokee hands. He stayed with his mother for the feasting and dancing that followed. He was too young to understand fully, but he knew that something wonderful had taken place. As the years passed, he would listen to recountings of the event. And he would know why the wampum belts were so valuable. They contained the talk of peace. The Cherokees would treasure them and pass them down to succeeding generations. For the rest of his life, the boy would remember what he had witnessed.
The Iroquois peace delegation arrived in Cherokee country in the early 1770's. The Cherokee boy who would later recall their arrival was Sequoyah.
Sequoyah spent his early years with his mother in what is now eastern Tennessee. Sequoyah's father was a white man -- a trader or a soldier -- who had left the Cherokee community before Sequoyah knew him. As was the custom for Cherokee boys, Sequoyah looked to his mother's brothers for guidance and instruction. His uncles were leaders among the Cherokees. One uncle held the honored position of town chief in the sacred capital.
Sequoyah grew up in mountain country. When the Cherokee elders described how the world began, they told about the Great Buzzard, who had flapped his wings against the soft mud of the just-formed earth. With each wingstroke down, the Great Buzzard created a valley, and with each stroke up he created a mountain. It was because of the Great Buzzard that Cherokee country was so full of mountains.
The Cherokee homelands are rugged but also lush and generous. The peaks are draped under a bluish mist. Today the Cherokee hills are known as the Great Smoky Mountains, or the Great Smokies.
As a boy, Sequoyah climbed the mountain trails, his soft deerskin moccasins silently gripping the earth. He walked among the towering yellow poplars and the strong white oaks, the sweet gum trees and the willows draping their leaves over rushing streams.
He learned how the world changes with the changing seasons. In the fall and winter, when crunching frost or snow covered the ground, he gathered nuts -- hickory, chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns that could be ground into meal. In the spring he waited for the winter ice to break and the streams to fill with roaring water. He listened curiously to the loud waterfalls and wondered about the conversations that the Thunder people might be having under them. Sequoyah listened for the thunderclaps and the pelting rain that came every year to wash the whole world clean. Colorful flowers then spilled from the mountainsides -- irises, rhododendrons, wild tiger lilies. In summer he gathered blackberries and huckleberries and strawberries.
He learned to recognize birds by their songs and to spot their nests in the trees. He learned how and where the turtles and the otters and the deer lived. Like all Cherokee children, he spent hours playing in the woods, learning by watching, listening, thinking. At an early age, Sequoyah was setting traps for turkeys and baiting baskets for fish. The forests were filled with deer, rabbits, raccoons, and bears. Herds of mountain bufalo still wandered in the region when Sequoyah was young. He herded wild colts from the woods to his mother's farmstead and cared for them until they were ready to be broken.Sequoyah's Gift. Copyright © by Janet Klausner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.