Wah-Kee-Nah and her people, including James Clark Strong

Wah-Kee-Nah and Her People


James Clark Strong

New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893

In places, a solidly interesting piece of Northwest Americana.

New Yorker J.C. Strong lived in the PNW starting in 1850, hanging out with Native people for six years, he says, and learning Chinook Jargon.

His book to a great degree is padded with material from secondary sources.  He spends many pages recapitulating the history of European-Native American contact from the Vikings onward.

Those few dozen pages have nothing really to do with this Wah-Kee-Nah.

There are, however, wonderful section dividers in the text.

I couldn’t help reproducing several of them.

It’s not till Chapter IX, which starts on page 122, that the author gets into the topic of the Chinook Indians and “their language, which I could speak fluently” (page 123)–obviously the Jargon.  Strong also discusses “Aunt Sally”, said to have been the wife of the head chief of the Chinooks when Lewis and Clark arrived, and mentioned by them.  He has spent many an hour chatting with her and hearing her stories of the old days.

Starting on page 133 is the story of the author’s brother [territorial judge William Strong], who decided to save a boy slave of the Chinooks by buying him.

The boy, whom William’s wife assumes to be starving, is served plate after plate of food on arriving at their home; he’s quoted as asking plaintively in Jargon, “Mammook nika muckamuck conaway okook?” (“Must I eat all this?)

Chapter X, from page 137, finally brings in Wah-Kee-Nah, who was a Yakima girl hired by Strong’s brother as a domestic servant.  The brother, and the author (who lived with him), must have been among the very first settlers on the North side of the Columbia River, in this case in the Cathlamet area near the outlet of the E-lo-ha-min (Elochoman) River.  I was fascinated to hear of one of Strong’s acquaintances being a “Chehalis” Indian who took up residence near Strong in order not to be mistaken for a hostile in the Indian wars.

The author strongly takes a pro-Indian stance.  He excoriates the injustice of there being a voluminous and carefully tended written record of Indian violence against whites while “the whole damning story of white atrocities must forever remain unwritten” (page 166).  Pretty refreshing stuff from the 1890s.

Unfortunately, only about four chapters of this book really deal with the author’s own experiences of the Yakima, Chinook and Chehalis people, compelling as those are.  The book closes with numerous more chapters of filler about the preceding centuries of white-Indian interaction.

Regardless, it’s a worthwhile and quick read, and a source for our region’s history that you probably haven’t heard of before.


James Clark Strong went on to Civil War glory and a successful pro-Indian lawyering career back in New York state.  For more on his interesting life, see his autobiography:

Biographical Sketch of James Clark Strong
Los Gatos, Santa Clara County, California: 1910.

There you’ll learn how Marcus Whitman got a young Strong interested in the Indians.  To my taste, this is the more interesting book, but not all of us prefer fact to historical sweep.  It’s certainly got a little more Siwash Wawa in it:

Strong says Native people complimented him: “Mica wawa siwash wawa hias close” — “You speak the Indian language very well.”

Later in life, as this book tells, Strong returned (1906?) to the Pacific Northwest on a pleasure trip to Portland and northward through southeast Alaska.

On that trip, aged about 80, he could still speak Jargon with the region’s Native people.  Now returning as a tourist, he was approached by some of them trying to sell him tenas icta (little things–souvenirs).

That’s about the size of it.  Strong strikes me as a perceptive but not loquacious firsthand source on early settlement times in our region, and one or the other of his pair of books is likely to grab you if you’re the type who reads my blog!