More Chinook Jargon in old Spokane

Jack Nisbet the other day was asking me how early Chinook Jargon was used in the Spokane area.

I happened to find Randall Harold Kemp’s book, “A Half-breed Dance, and Other Far Western Stories: Mining Camp, Indian and Hudson’s Bay Tales Based on the Experiences of the Author” (Spokane, WA: Inland Printing Co., 1909).

Kemp specifies a time range of the 1880s, “upward of twenty years ago” (page 5), for the events in his autobiographical account of prospecting on the Inland Northwest frontier, interlarded with some tall tales, and he invokes Chinuk Wawa a fair bit.  We also learn (page 25) that before that point, in 1878-9, he was in Nevada.

He mentions “Siwashes” in connection with the Okanagan Smith ranch near Osoyoos Lake, modern Oroville (pages 5-7).

On page 8, the titular dance — with “a Hudson’s Bay fiddler” — is described as a multilingual crowd in which people are talking English, Indian, “Chinook“, and Chinese.  By page 14, the author has found a Native dance partner, and in “very poor English, fair Chinook and sometimes using the Indian language”, she conveys her life story to him during a break in the dancing, which spurs, gumboots and so on make sometimes dangerous:

Thus awakened by his bunkmate, the author tumbles out of his dream of female companionship.

A fact-based anecdote follows, taking place in 1889 at Metaline mining district of far northeast Washington.  “Calispel” (Kalispel Salish) youth Kusote understands the greeting “kla how ya” (page 16), and by page 17 is startling the narrator by tracking him down in Spokane:


Chinuk Wawa is represented as his tribal language, hm.

A Spokane-tribe man known as Jim who is “a familiar figure” in town is easy to communicate with in Jargon (page 64).


Unfortunately on pages 72-73 Jim is represented as exclaiming in this language, “Pi-ah chuck hy-as kloshe“, translated by Kemp as “Fire water is very good.”  By page 78 the conversation is of a less objectionable nature: “Ni-ka nan-ich ictas“, translated as “I see the things.”  On page 84, “When Jim was asked for a ‘piah stick‘ (match) he answered ‘halo‘ (none).”

Kemp astutely disputes the supposed Chinook Jargon etymology of “Hee-Hee Stone“, pointing out that this former landmark was known for its sacred character, therefore to call it “ludicrous, or funny” is not a proper label (pages 126-127).

All in all, this small book is an entertaining read, and one that, despite its flights of fancy, fairly firmly backs up the evidence of other sources that Chinook Jargon was in currency between Natives and newcomers around Spokane in the 1880s and 1890s.