Cathlamet on the Columbia

cathlamet on the columbia

Cathlamet on the Columbia: Recollections of the Indian people and short stories of the early pioneer days in the valley of the lower Columbia River“, by Thomas Nelson Strong (The Holly Press, Portland OR, 1906).

Chief Moses

A minor classic in the Northwest.  Page 40 relates the Chinuk Wawa explanation of Wenatchi Chief Moses — by all accounts a frequent user and fluent speaker of the pidgin — when asked about “how the right-sized fish got in the right-sized streams”:



Mika ticka cumtux caqua ucook tenas salmon chawco copa tenas chuck?  Na, na, chawco, nesica tillicum be nesika cumtux yaca quansum mitlite.

This is translated by Strong as “You want to know how the little salmon got into the little creek?  No, no, they didn’t get in.  My people know, and I know, that they have always been there.”

I feel that that’s a decent translation, although the “Na, na” bit might more likely have been intended as the interjection that meant approximately “come on now” (“let’s be realistic”).  Also, strictly speaking, the English should say “My people and I know”.

Strong’s spellings, do you notice, are fairly unique.  He isn’t just copying the way the Chinook words are written in the most popular dictionaries of his time, and to me this sort of strategy often suggests that a person is writing from personal experience.  That’s plausible with writers who weren’t highly literate and had to muster whatever use they were able from letters and punctuation.  It’s all the more believable with a man of letters such as Strong was; he quite likely had read, and owned, the Jargon books of the late 1800s.

Thomas Nelson Strong was a nephew, it’s relevant to point out, of James Clark Strong, who had plenty of early frontier experience with Chinuk Wawa in Oregon Territory.  T.N. speaks in the introduction to “Cathlamet on the Columbia” of hearing old-timers’ frontier stories as a boy; his uncle’s might have been prominent among those.

In a separate post, I’ll show you a couple of Native people’s take on the Chief Moses quote seen above.