Why would Frederic Remington use Chinuk Wawa?

The master of the “Western” genre in American painting, Frederic Remington (1861-1909), got most of his down-to-earth experience on the Plains: places like Nebraska and Montana.

halt who goes there

On a website like mine, you’ll expect some tie-in with language, and I can tell you that it’s plenty interesting to read The Collected Writings of Frederic Remington, edited by Peggy & Harold Samuels (New York: Doubleday, 1979), on that score.

The American Indians who this smart, fun polymath sketches in the writing that accompanies each of his illustrations speak in a range of forms transitional between tribal languages and fluent English.

His Californians use an accurate and evocative interlarding of Spanish.

His cowboys and soldiers sling deep slang of the late 1800s.

His recurring character, the Montana Métis called Sun-Down Leflare, is a rich source of idiomatic French-accented English spiced with Native words.

And in the book’s longest piece, the 1902 novelette “John Ermine of the Yellowstone”, the “much mixed-blooded man” (p.458) Mr. Chick-chick, “who was an Oregon product” (p.459), talks a mishmash of everything from sign language to fractured English to Chinuk Wawa.

[Note: I posted much more briefly about “John Ermine” on the old CHINOOK listserv in 2007.]

wolf voice

A second, similarly versatile character, Wolf Voice, “arrived among the traders speaking Gros Ventre…blew into the Crow camp…prepared to make his thoughts known in his mother tongue or to embellish it with Breed-French or Chinook; he had sought the camp of the white soldiers and added to his Absaroke sundry ‘God-damns’ and other useful expressions needed in his business” (p.487).

All of this is accurate for northwest Montana. Except for the Chinook.

You might have been an Oregonian but from all evidence that has come to me in 20 years of research, Chinook Jargon would get you no farther than Sanskrit would in frontier Montana.

It’s notable, I think, that “John Ermine” is the one really obvious piece of fiction among Remington’s writings.

And it’s the one set prior to the writer’s own present day: back in 1864.

So (kind of sadly from our perspective!) the Chinook Jargon in it is kind of fanciful.

But it’s fun if you have some knowledge of it, which sets you on the inside track because not all of it is translated by Remington.

P. 458 has “Go! Go!”:

“Klat-a-way! Klat-a-way!” shouted the men as they whipped and spurred up the steeps. The road narrowed near the top, nad here the surging horsemen were stopped by a few men who stood in the middle waving and howling “Halt!”

Pp. 458-459 introduce Mr. “Wagon” who doesn’t “know” Crow but can speak a “little Chinook” such as “what do I want” [maybe nica is a typo, as was common, for mica ‘you’]:

“Now, our esteemed friend yer, Mr. Chick-chick, savvies Injuns, as you know, he bein’ somewhat their way hisself”…”No,” replied that much mixed-blooded man, “I no cumtux Crow, but I make the hand talk, and I can clean up a ten-ass Chinook…You hang on to your gun–suppose they try take it away–well, den, icta-nica-ticki, you shoot!”

P.459 shows the word for “go” still undefined but in the same eye-spelling that all but beats the reader over the head with its English meaning:

Also, Chick-chick intimated that he must klat-a-way. The Indians made it plain that he was not going to klat-a-way

P.459 also shows the crossover between Chinook and English, with folks in Montana etymologizing away:

Chick-chick, or Chickens, as the miners often called him…

P.490 exceptionally footnotes both of the fully spelt-out words of Wolf-Voice’s ejaculation with translations as “Get up!” and “Run!”:

“G—– d—–! Mit-wit! Coo-ley!

On p. 501, the detail that “the wagons…were full of ‘chuck,’ and water was at hand” is a red herring for a Chinooker (‘chuck’ is cowboy for ‘food’), but Wolf-Voice is Chinooking when he calls hostile Natives “worthless people”:

“By Jeskris, Maje Searl, bout two-tree minit you bettar look out; dose Kul-tus-til-lakum she mak de grass burn yu up, by Gar.”

Many pages later (p.542-543), the same fella reappears, and his “Canada man” is crypto-Chinook [by accident I’m sure, but it was an expression used in 1890s Kamloops] but he’s really Chinuk Wawa’ing about the “Englishman” and he means it when he says “oh my”:

“Ain’t dose Canada-man pay for dese pony…?…What for you waas come to de King George Man, anyhow?…Ugh! ugh!–a-nah,” grunted the half-breed; “de —– —– Shoshone, we will leek de pony–come–come!”

He means it just as much on p.544:

[Harding:] “Ermine wants Butler’s girl and cannot get her; that is the trouble.” [Wolf-Voice:] “Anah-a! a bag of a squaw, ees eet?”

“John Ermine” went on to be staged as a play by James K. Hackett in Boston and New York. We know (p.624-625) that it flopped; Remington thought New Yorkers “don’t want to know anything about the Indian or the half-breed” (p.625) and I can’t help wondering how they’d react to Chinook onstage.

As to the source of Remington’s Chinook, I can tell you that he’s the one who added all those hyphens to break up the words into conventional “Indian talk”. (Icta-nica-ticki is the exception that proves the rule, with Remington turning three words into a seeming single complex Indian expletive.) If you go searching for e.g. klat-a-way, you’ll likely find that he’s about the only person to have spelled the word thus. To my surprise it was similarly hard to find another occurrence of ten-ass when I checked on that; I mostly found Bible translations whose mention of “three score and ten ass loads” will surely delight the 12-year-old in you!

Take away the hyphens, though, and half of these few Jargon words used by Remington kind of melt into the landscape of the spellings that were already conventional by 1902. The other half are spellings that I don’t find anyone else using. Tantalizing.

A more useful clue about sources would be to examine the author’s personal library for any Chinook dictionaries, or other sources. Remington was highly literate, deeply interested in the Western frontier, and would surely have read everything he could lay hands on about the region. But maybe he picked up a bit of Chinook from an acquaintance, who knows at this point?