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Searching for Sequoyah Documentary Hosted by OU Professor Premieres on PBS

Searching for Sequoyah Documentary Hosted by OU Professor Premieres on PBS

Nelson interviews a woman while being filmed for the documentary. A production crew member holds an umbrella to sheild the camera from the rain.

OU professor Joshua Nelson interviews a descendant of Sequoyah in Morelos, Coahuila, Mexico.

A documentary narrated, co-written and co-produced by University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Nelson is set to premiere nationally Nov. 1 on PBS. Searching for Sequoyah is the first documentary feature to chronicle the legendary accomplishments and mysterious death of the famed 19th-century Cherokee visionary, Sequoyah (George Guess).

The documentary was a major collaborative effort and was directed by James M. Fortier (Ojibway) and produced by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation).  PBS-affiliated stations will begin  broadcasting Searching for Sequoyah beginning Nov. 1 as part of their programming for Native American Heritage Month. Viewers should check their local PBS schedule for the exact date and time. 

While much is known about Sequoyah’s many accomplishments, very little is known about the man himself. The greatest mystery is not that he created the Cherokee writing system, but rather the details of his final journey to Mexico and the circumstances of his death. After removal from their homelands in the 1830s separated some Cherokees as far as Mexico, Sequoyah set out late in life to reunite the Cherokee people. From Taskigi, Tennessee, to Zaragoza, Mexico – Searching for Sequoyah takes viewers on a journey retracing Sequoyah's final quest, the mystery surrounding his death and the legacy he left behind.

Searching For Sequoyah production Nelson interviews a man at a table

Filming with Joshua Nelson and Zaragoza, Mexico-based historian Alberto Galindo.

Nelson Headshot

“Sequoyah’s story brings the past right up to the present, and it models the importance of bringing Cherokee people together,” said Nelson. “This unifying force was really the core of his genius, and that’s a major part of the story we wanted to tell. But it wasn’t long before we also found ourselves telling a mystery story. I felt more like a detective than I did a narrator.”

Nelson is an OU President’s Associates Presidential Professor, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a native Oklahoman. He is an associate professor of English, and affiliated faculty with Film and Media Studies, Native American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies, focusing on American Indian literature and film. His book, Progressive Traditions: Identity in Cherokee Literature and Culture (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), argues against the pervasive way of describing Indigenous people as assimilated vs. traditional. It explores the empowering potential of traditional, adaptive strategies and practices to address cultural and historical dilemmas. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in psychology at Yale University and his doctoral degree in English at Cornell University.

Nelson teaches courses on American Indian literature and literary criticism and film, and he is the lead organizer of the Native Crossroads Film Festival and Symposium. For his next project, he will direct a documentary film about two American Indian Medal of Honor awardees in the 45th Infantry Division, the Thunderbirds, during World War II.

Additionally, several members of the cast and crew have connections to OU. Karl W. Schmidt, manager of the Digital Media Lab in the Film and Media Studies department at OU, worked on location sound and was a photographer and videographer for the film. Production manager Julianna Brannum (B.A., Journalism, ‘99), production manager and translator Amanda Cuellar (Ph.D., English Literature, ‘20) and additional videography and production assistant Matt Kliewer (M.A., English Literature, ‘17) all graduated from OU. Interviewees included OU graduates Candessa Tehee (B.A., Communication, ‘00; M.A., Adult and Higher Education, ‘03; Ph.D., Anthropology, ‘14) and Mosiah Bluecloud (B.A., Linguistics, ‘16). 

This article was originally published by the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences.

Documentary production photos provided by Karl W. Schmidt

Article Published:  Wednesday, November 3, 2021