Ahyoka is the daughter of Sequoyah, a silversmith who has given up most of his trade to focus on his true passion. He longs for the day when the Cherokee people can communicate to one another from afar and document the history of their lives. He wants his people—the Real People—to have a written language like the white men do.
When he is ostracized from his community for the “magic” he is creating, he leaves his home to pursue his quest. His young daughter, who shares his dream, joins him on his journey. They work together to create a syllabic alphabet that will tell the story of the Cherokee people.
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Ahyoka and the Talking Leaves
By Peter Roop, Connie Roop, Yoshi Miyaki
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Peter and Connie Roop
All rights reserved.
Ahyoka's charcoal flew across the sycamore bark.
Would Father understand her picture? Sometimes he knew what her drawings meant. Other times he did not. When she had drawn her best buffalo, he had thought it was a cow.
For two summers and two winters Ahyoka and her father, Sequoyah, had been drawing pictures for the Tsalagi people's words. The Cherokee had so many words, and she and Sequoyah had to draw a picture for every one of them. The stack of drawings in the corner reached Ahyoka's chin. Yet she felt as if they had just begun.
There were still so many more words to draw: Gadu, bread. Ahawi, deer. Waya, wolf. And those were the easy words. What would she draw for hard ones, for anger, sorrow, dusk, autumn?
Ahyoka sighed. Even if they drew every Cherokee word, would her people understand them? How could they learn to read all those pictures? Even she had trouble remembering them. And yet, white men had done it. They could read their words on the talking leaves.
Suddenly Ahyoka's mother yanked the picture off her lap.
"You are supposed to be stitching moccasins. But here you are again, making pictures ... talking leaves! What good are they? They don't make moccasins to trade. They don't feed the chickens or plant corn or ..."
She stared at the fire for a moment, then flung Ahyoka's picture into the flames.
"Mother!" cried Ahyoka. She grabbed the picture and brushed it off. Soot and charcoal smudged her deerskin dress.
"Once, we had a good farm," Utiya snapped. "Once, your father made the best silver jewelry in the Cherokee Nation. People came from miles away to buy his silver."
Ahyoka caressed her silver bracelet. Two years earlier, Sequoyah had made it to celebrate her sixth season of life. He had not worked silver since.
"Now no one comes to our door," Utiya continued, "except to ask for payment of our debts. Day and night your father thinks only of talking leaves. And you are becoming just as bad! I need you to make moccasins, not talking leaves. Someday I am going to burn that whole stack!"
Mother was right. Father thought only of talking leaves. He wanted to help his people. He wanted the Tsalagi to read and write. He wanted them to understand the treaties they signed so that the white men could no longer steal their land. Why couldn't Mother understand?
Utiya bundled up the last of the snakeroot that they had gathered the spring before. She shoved it at Ahyoka. Ahyoka dropped her picture to take it.
"We have nothing else left to trade," Utiya said. "Now go find your father. I need four needles from the trader in the village. And tell him to get red thread from your aunt Tsiya so that we can finish these moccasins."
Ahyoka picked up her drawing and started down the trail. Her mother's words chased after her.
"And don't waste time on those useless talking leaves!"CHAPTER 2
Silent as a chipmunk, Ahyoka slipped along the path. She knew exactly where to find her father. A huge hickory tree stood deep in the forest. Sequoyah often went there when he wanted to be alone. Since winter had ended, he went there every day.
Ahyoka hid behind a tree. Perhaps she could surprise her father. He sat against the hickory, his walking stick beside him on the ground. He held his hands out, then slowly turned them. Ahyoka saw the light dance over his palms. He picked up a wedge of charcoal and began to draw.
He must be drawing agaliha, sunshine, Ahyoka thought. A difficult word-picture, almost as difficult as anger. She had never seen Utiya as angry as she'd been that morning. It was as though something had snapped inside her. How could Ahyoka ever draw such fury? Just then her foot slipped, breaking a dry, thin branch. That was it! A broken stick could mean anger!
At the sound, Sequoyah raised his head. Ahyoka stepped from behind the tree.
"Hold out your hands," he told her. Light filled Ahyoka's hands and flashed from her bracelet. "See how the sunshine dances. How can we ever draw the words to say that?" His shoulders slumped.
As Ahyoka sat down beside her father, a squirrel scurried past. Overhead, a woodpecker tapped for insects. Sequoyah's charcoal scraped across the bark as he tried to draw the dancing sunlight.
At last he laid his charcoal down. "What new word have you drawn?" he asked.
Ahyoka handed him her picture. He turned it one way, then another. He pulled it close to his eyes. He held it at arm's length.
"Are these our Big Mountains?"
"No, Father," Ahyoka said. "We already drew that."
"Then it must be the mounds in which we plant corn in the spring."
Ahyoka shook her head. Could he really not tell, or was he teasing her?
Sequoyah laughed and looked into her eyes. "It is our stream," he told her.
Ahyoka laughed too. He had known it all the time.
"How did it get smeared?" Sequoyah asked.
Ahyoka had forgotten all about the smudge marks. She had forgotten why she was there.
"Mother needs needles and thread." Ahyoka's words spilled out. "She is very angry this time. She threw my picture into the fire. We must go to the village right now!"
"Your mother has been angry before," Sequoyah answered calmly. "No doubt, she will be angry again." He picked up his walking stick. "Come on, you broken twig," he said, rubbing his lame leg. "A walk will feel good after all this sitting."
They set off down the mountain to Willstown.
"Tell me again how you learned of the talking leaves," Ahyoka begged.
"Again?" Sequoyah asked. "You have heard that story many times."
"Then I will hear it one more time. Please."
"Ahyoka, you are as persistent as a mosquito. You will pester me until I tell you."
"That will be the next picture I draw," she said. "Dosaudvna bothering a big man. It will mean pester." Sequoyah chuckled.
"When you were just a newborn baby," he began, "I was a soldier in the American Army. We were fighting the Creeks, far away at Horseshoe Bend. How I missed your mother and brothers! I wondered how tall the corn grew. I worried whether my family was hungry. Most of all, I wanted to know about you, Ahyoka, whom we named She Who Brought Happiness. I was lonely and missed the happiness that you brought us.
"The white soldiers looked at leaves of paper sent by their families. The marks on the papers spoke to them. They told how tall the corn was at home. They told whether the hunting was good or bad. They told when someone was sick or when a baby was born or when someone died.
"Why couldn't we, the Real People, have talking leaves, I asked myself. Then I would know about my family. Utiya would know about me. Real People everywhere would know what happened to loved ones far away. I decided then that no matter how long it took, I would make talking leaves for our people!"
They stopped to rest at an abandoned cabin. While Sequoyah leaned on his cane and filled his clay pipe, Ahyoka peered through the door into the gloomy darkness.
"Why did Climbing Bear and his family move away?" she asked.
Sequoyah stared at the cabin. He puffed his pipe, and small clouds of smoke rose above his head. At last he spoke. "They loved the old ways of the Real People. They did not like the new things that were happening. They said the Tsalagi were becoming too much like the white man: fighting his wars, building churches, farming with plows. They wanted to go back to the days before the white men came. We have heard nothing of them for three winters now."
"If we had talking leaves, we could write to them," Ahyoka said.
"If we had talking leaves," Sequoyah repeated sadly. He tapped his pipe out. "Come, Ahyoka. We have rested long enough. Perhaps Mr. Adair found a book of talking leaves for us. I would like you to see it," Sequoyah said.
"Is the secret of the talking leaves in a book, Father?" Ahyoka asked.
"I don't know, my daughter. Once, when I visited a mission school, I saw boys and girls your age learning from books."
"Then why can't we learn from their books?"
"Books speak English. We want leaves that talk the words of our people."
When will we have them? wondered Ahyoka as they followed the trail down the mountain.CHAPTER 3
An hour later, they stopped at the Etowah River. The square log cabins and humpbacked lodges of Willstown stood on the west bank. Ahyoka and Sequoyah crossed the shallow ford. Near the Council House, naked boys chased one another. Girls pounded corn while grandmothers spun cotton thread. Ahyoka and Sequoyah stepped over dogs plopped in the dust.
They found Mr. Adair, the trader, in front of the Council House. Ahyoka liked Mr. Adair. He was always so friendly to them. His wares were spread out on a large gray blanket. Her eyes skimmed over the buttons, beads, fishhooks, ax heads, steel knives, pots, and skillets. She saw nothing that might be a book.
"I was hoping you two would come to town while I was trading. You look as pretty as a sunflower in full bloom, Ahyoka," Mr. Adair said in greeting. "But I wish you were still making jewelry, Sequoyah. From the Tennessee River to the Chattahoochee, people keep asking for Sequoyah's silver. I could trade a packful!"
"I have not had time for working silver," Sequoyah replied. "I am working on the talking leaves."
"And I am helping him," Ahyoka added.
"Well, I guess I am helping too. It took a lot of looking, but I finally found a book for you." Mr. Adair reached into his pack and Ahyoka's eyes brightened. He pulled out a thin leather-covered book and handed it to Sequoyah.
Sequoyah held the book as tenderly as a baby bird. Ahyoka longed to reach out and touch it. She and Sequoyah stood gazing at the book. Then, without opening it, Sequoyah handed it to her.
Ahyoka stroked the leather cover. It was as soft as her mother's best moccasins. A golden tree, as smooth and cool as her bracelet, spread its branches across the crinkled leather. Then she opened it. Tiny black marks marched across the white pages.
Ahyoka pointed to the black lines. "Are these the marks that speak?" she asked.
"Yes," answered Mr. Adair. "This is a spelling book. The marks tell how to write words."
"But how can they talk, Father?" asked Ahyoka.
"That is the secret," Sequoyah answered. "These leaves talk English. We must make them speak Tsalagi."
"Can you make the marks speak, Mr. Adair?" Ahyoka asked.
"No. They don't make any sense to me. I can't read them either."
"Thank you for bringing the book," Sequoyah said. "I have Utiya's best snake-root to trade for it."
Ahyoka held her breath. What would Mother say when she found out they traded her snakeroot for a book?
Mr. Adair frowned and shook his head. "I need more than snakeroot for the book, Sequoyah! Books are as rare as wings on bears around here. I did some hard trading to get this for you," he said.
Ahyoka ran her fingers over the leather cover again. Mr. Adair held out his palm. Reluctantly, she handed him the book. She could hardly bear to look at her father. His eyes seemed like those of a dying doe.
"I hope I find someone else who wants it," Mr. Adair grumbled, shoving the book back into his pack. "I ain't got no use for it."
The three stood in silence. Ahyoka rubbed her silver bracelet.
"We must go to Tsiya's," Sequoyah said at last.
"You go, Father," Ahyoka told him. "I will get Mother's needles and meet you at the river."
Sequoyah nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Adair, for finding the book," he said. "Another time I will have enough to trade for it." Then he turned away. Ahyoka watched him limp to her aunt's home. She touched her bracelet again. Slowly, she slid the bracelet off her wrist.
"Will you trade the book for my bracelet?" she asked, holding it out. "My father made it."
Mr. Adair took the bracelet. He bounced it in his hand to test the weight of the silver. When his fingers found Sequoyah's mark, he smiled.
"This is the finest piece of Sequoyah's silver I have ever seen. Yes, Ahyoka, I will trade the book for the bracelet. And I will add the needles your mother wants."
The trader opened a small paper packet. Six steel sewing needles flashed in the sunlight.
"These are my best," he said. "Made in England. Utiya will like them."
"Not when she finds out I traded my bracelet for a book." Ahyoka sighed. "But I still have the snakeroot. And two extra needles. That should help to please her."
Mr. Adair handed the book to Ahyoka. She traced the shapes on the cover, running her fingers up and down the trunk of the golden tree. Then she carefully put the book into her pouch and looked at Mr. Adair. "If my father comes back, do not tell him about our trade. I do not know if he will be pleased. And I want to surprise him."
Mr. Adair shook his head. "I sure don't understand why he wants to learn how to read so bad. I've never seen a man so set upon something."
Why doesn't anyone want talking leaves as Father does? wondered Ahyoka as she flew from the village. She hoped Sequoyah would be waiting for her by the river. She could hardly wait to see his look of surprise when she handed him the book. Then she thought again. He might make her return it. She should be patient and show him after they left Willstown.
Sequoyah was not at the ford, so Ahyoka opened the book and puzzled over the marks. There were circle shapes like the sun, smaller moon circles, dots like young stars. There were lines like arrow shafts, snake shapes, shapes like mountains. But none of the shapes made sense to her. When she looked at one of her father's drawings, she knew what animal or plant it was. Bird tracks in mud told which way the bird was going and what kind it was. But Ahyoka could not fathom the meaning of a snail crawling up a reed beside the full moon. The word "do" appeared too often to make any sense at all to Ahyoka.
Ahyoka shook her head and looked up. Her father was coming! Quickly, she slipped the book back into her pouch and carefully squeezed the snakeroot in with it.
"Look, Father," she called, running to meet him. "Six needles for Mother! I know she will be pleased." She hoped he would not see that her bracelet was gone or that her pouch was full.
"At least you made a good trade, Ahyoka," he said. "And I have the thread. We must return home now."
They traveled without talking. The late-afternoon sun warmed their backs. Once, a black snake slithered to cover as they neared. Blue jays squawked at them. Insects hummed.
The book bounced against Ahyoka's hip as she walked. She patted the pouch, hoping the solution to the mystery of the talking leaves was in it. Several times, she reached for the book to show Sequoyah but decided to wait until they stopped to rest. She felt as though she was going to pop like dried corn thrown into a crackling fire.
At last she saw Climbing Bear's abandoned cabin. "My feet are tired. Let's stop, Father," she suggested.
"Only for as long as it takes a squirrel to crack a nut," Sequoyah answered. "Your mother will be angry enough with us as it is."
Without looking at her father, Ahyoka slowly opened her pouch and touched the book. The leather felt cool. She ran her hand down the crinkled spine. "Father, I traded my bracelet for the book."
Sequoyah took a deep breath. Then he let it out in a long sigh. He stared at his daughter.
"Father, please don't be angry," Ahyoka pleaded. "Don't make me take it back. I want you to have it." She placed the book in her father's hands.
Sequoyah opened the cover. "Ahyoka. She Who Brought Happiness," he said. "Your heart truly does believe in the talking leaves." He ran his fingers over the pages. "I hope Adanvdo, the Great Spirit, will open our eyes to its mystery."
They talked as they walked. What did the suns and arrows on the pages mean? They were not pictures, yet they spoke to the white people. How could they be made to speak to the Real People?
Soon their cabin was in sight. Gray smoke rose from its chimney.
"Smell that, Ahyoka?" said Sequoyah. "Mother must be roasting squirrel for dinner."
"Did you shoot a squirrel?" Ahyoka asked.
"No," he answered, suddenly puzzled.
All at once Ahyoka understood. "Our pictures!" she shouted. "Mother is burning our pictures!"
Ahyoka raced to the cabin. She flung open the door. The stack of pictures was gone! Utiya was throwing the last one into the flames. Ahyoka burst into tears.
"I warned you," Utiya shouted. "I said I would burn them!"
Sequoyah stood in the cabin doorway, staring. His fingers gripped his walking stick like the claws of an owl. Sparks shot up the chimney as he turned to face Utiya. Ahyoka had never seen anyone so angry.
"I will live here no longer," Sequoyah thundered.
Excerpted from Ahyoka and the Talking Leaves by Peter Roop, Connie Roop, Yoshi Miyaki. Copyright © 1992 Peter and Connie Roop. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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