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"Tell Them They Lie"

    *Tell Them They Lie: the Sequoyah Myth* by
Traveller Bird, Los 
Angeles CA: Westernlore Publishers, 1971, promotes an
alternate view 
to history's accepted view that the Cherokee Native
American Sequoyah, 
essentially by himself, invented a syllabary for the
writing of his 
native language.  Instead, "Tell Them They Lie" said
that the Cherokee 
syllabary had been in use for hundreds of years by a
clan of scribes.  
The white man wanted to completely destroy the
script.   Sequoyah was 
the last of the scribal clan; he only managed to save
the syllabary 
from utter destruction by cooperating with missionaries
who used a 
form of it modified for the printing press to
disseminate Christian 
religious literature.  

    I saw this book in the Muskogee, Oklahoma, library,
along with 
other Cherokee material.   Here's  the web page for all
libraries in 
the area: 


    I looked at the book only very casually.  The
librarian there told me 
that many people had expressed skepticism about "Tell
Them They Lie". 

    I think that the best argument against this book
comes from the 
consideration of analogous developments in Africa.
Scripts from many 
different origins were used in that vast continent, due
to many 
different situations and intercultural contacts.  

    Some Africans wrote their languages in Arabic
script due to the 
acceptance of Islam.  Others used scripts of Semitic
origin, as in Ethiopia.  
some indigenous scripts for African languages developed
in the early 
1800's when European colonization of the West African
coast was 
beginning. This last situation is analogous to the case
of Sequoyah.  
I will present some examples of these West African

    Cornell University has examples of several African


    which include the Vai syllabary of the Vai in


    the Mende syllabary of Sierra Leone:


    and the Nsibidi ideographic script of present-day
Nigeria's east coast.


    This site shows the beautiful phonemic Bassa script

    Note that this contains symbols for vowels,
consonants, and tones! 

    All these and several others appear on the
Bibliothèque nationale 
de France page: 


    Here it notes, "In 1833, the Vai alphabet was
invented by D. 
Bukele." I hadn't seen a name for an inventor of the
Vai script 

    This map gives the locations of all these scripts:


    Note that they are almost all on the West African
coast. Further 
inland, the Africans had long been in contacts with the
Arabs and many 
societies had accepted Islam. Arabic became a language
of scholarship 
and in time some African languages were written in
Arabic script.   

    In E. Jefferson Murphy, *The History of African
chapter 9, "States of the West African Forests", we
find, "Despite an 
almost complete absence of Islamic influence, urban and
court life was 
as rich and civilized, in its own way, as it was in the
great states 
of the Sudan [the belt of grassland across the
continent just below 
the Sahara desert].  There was no knowledge of writing,
yet priests 
and intellectually curious men often debated religious
philosophical questions." p. 154.  He is speaking of
the time before 
colonization started in the early 1800's.  

    Further east are scripts such as Amharic, Ge'ez,
and Meroitic of 
Semitic or Egyptian origins. 

    So other African societies has gotten writing from
other sources 
and other situations.  Semitic scripts like Ge'ez and
Amharic in 
Ethiopia had been acquired millennia ago, in much the
same fashion as 
groups in the Middle East.  Arabic script in inner
Africa was acquired 
from the Arabs during peaceful trade contact. The West
African coastal 
scripts listed above seem little like Semitic scripts,
or European 
ones for that matter.  As Murphy noted, they were
unknown before 
European contact. As Sequoyah had, the West Coast
Africans saw the 
hostile, acquisitive plans of the Europeans. As
Sequoyah had, the 
West Coast Africans saw from the Europeans that the
writing of spoken 
language was possible and then devised systems from the
images of 
their own cultures.  As Sequoyah had, they saw that
would be a powerful weapon against the white man's



we read: "The principal alphabets that are properly
African (Vai, 
Mende, Bamoun, and Bassa) were born in the 19th
century.  They drew 
upon millenary traditions for their symbols...  The
majority of these 
systems gave way to Roman transcriptions at the
beginning of the 20th 
century, except for Vai which is still in use."   The
loss of the 
native scripts was undoubtedly due to the brutal
imposition of 
colonialism over nearly all Africa after the Berlin
Conference of 

    So these native African writing systems - phonemic,
syllabic, and 
ideographic - all developed in a manner quite analogous
to that of 
what Sequoyah did.  We've even have the name of a
possible inventor of one 
script, D. Bukele for the Vai syllabary of Liberia.  In
light of the 
differing situations seen in Africa, the traditional
view of a sole 
man, Sequoyah, inventing a writing system for his
people seems quite 

    However, in closing, it's only fair to note that
these pages 
contain more than a normal amount of baloney. The site
for the Bassa 
script makes extravagant claims that the Bassa script
spread all over 
Africa, that "Had Hannibal visited Liberia in 500 B.C.,
Kpowin (Tradetown) and Bassa Cove, he would have
witnessed the Bassa 
script in use...   Dr. Flo Darvin Lewis in the 1900s
would re-discover 
the script in South America."  

    As for the Bibliothèque nationale de France pages,
we find the 
following at: 



    "This is not a myth.  It is a true story that took
place just 100 
years ago in the Bamoun homeland, in the region of
Foumban, in the 
center of Cameroon. 

    "Formerly, the Bamouns used other writings. 

    "One night, the sultan N'Joya had a dream; a man
appeared to him 
and said: "O King, take a board and draw a man's hand,
wash what thou 
hast drawn, and drink it."  The king took a board and
drew a man's 

    "The next day, once again the king took a board and
drew a man's 
hand; he washed the board and drank the water used for
this washing.  
Then he called many people and told them: "If you draw
all sorts of 
different things and you succeed in naming them all, I
will make a 
book that will speak without anyone having to listen." 

    "What good is this?" the people replied.  "No
matter what we do, it 
won't work." 

    "If you think carefully, it will succeed," replied
the king.  "Go 
and draw different things and then, you shall bring me
what you will 
have done."   They went and did what he had told them,
and then came 
to present their work to the king. 

    For his part, the king himself had made trials.  He
called two of 
his friends, Mama and Adjia to help him compare the
work that had been 
done one place or another.  Five times the king tried,
but in vain, to 
get the right result; it was the sixth trial that

    The writing had been found.  The king assembled his
people and 
taught them the new characters.  The people learned
well, for the 
greatest satisfaction of the king N'Joya." 

    *This is not a myth, it is a true story." 


    *Sigh*.  French scholarship obviously isn't what it
used to be...