Blue ruin in Chinuk Wawa

blue ruin pdx-1844-first-house-420

House of the “blue ruin”, a status-enhancing custom of the White


Another Chinuk Wawa song!

A new word!

And shoddy anthropology!

It’s easy to gin up a short article today, with material like this footnote from Hubert Howe Bancroft:

The missionaries, the women of Oregon city, and friends of temperance generally, were still laboring to effect prohibition of the traffic in spirituous liquors. The legislature of 1847 passed an amendment to the organic law, enacting that the word ‘prohibit’ should be inserted in the place of ‘regulate’ in the 6th section, which read that the legislature should have power to ‘regulate the introduction, manufacture, and sale of ardent spirits.’ Or. Laws, 1843-9, 44. No change could be made in the organic law without submitting it to the vote of the people at the ensuing election, which being done, a majority were for prohibition. Grover’s Or. Archives, 273-4. When the matter again came before the colonial legislature at its last session, that part of the governor’s message referring to prohibition was laid on the table, on motion of Jesse Applegate. A bill to amend the organic laws, as above provided, was subsequently introduced by Samuel R. Thurston, but was rejected by vote, on motion of Applegate, Id., 293. Applegate’s independent spirit revolted at prohibition, besides which he took a personal gratification from securing the rejection of a measure emanating from a missionary source. Surely all good people would be naturally averse to hearing an uncultivated savage who was full of bad whiskey, singing in Chinook:

     ‘Nah! six, potlach blue lu (blue ruin),
     Nika ticka, blue lu,
     Hiyu blue lu,
     Hyas olo,
     Potlach blue lu.

Which freely translated would run:

     ‘Hallo! friend, give me some whiskey;
     I want whiskey, plenty of whiskey;
     Very thirsty; give me some whiskey.’

Moss’ Pioneer Times, MS., 56-7.

— “History of the Pacific States of North America“, volume XXV: Oregon, volume II: 1848-1888.  San Francisco: The History Company, 1888.

Bonus!  You get a new Jargon word, blue lu, which is from slang in English: “blue ruin” meaning “gin”.  

This Moss person seems to be Sydney Walter Moss, an early pioneer of Oregon who ran a saloon and/or a store and wrote the first published work of fiction in the Territory.  (Amusingly there is a SW Moss street in modern-day Portland.)  There are quite a few references to him in Bancroft’s volume.

The manuscript “Pictures of Pioneer Times at Oregon City” (1878) must’ve been acquired by Mr. Bancroft (confirmation here), because it now lives at UC Berkeley Libraries.  I still need to make a research trip there, and visit Jim Holton’s vineyard to say potlach pil wine 🙂

Great stuff.


A parting admonition: a recent book “The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington” repeats on page 18 the above song with contextualizing comments that seem to purposely miss their mark by a mile.  Instead of availing himself of Bancroft’s and Moss’s perfectly accurate translation, which he consigns to an endnote, author Norman H. Clark insists on that most amateurish of scholarly approaches that has victimized our poor Chinook Jargon for the longest time: he “translates” by elaborately speculating on the meanings and associations of individual, decontextualized words of the song.  Because you know, you can do that with primitive languages, eh?

This results in his claiming that this “blue lu” came from illegal stills (despite having established in his previous paragraph that Moss was a licensed seller who was supplied by licensed distillers).  Appealing to Edwin M. Lemert as an authority (“Alcohol and the Northwest Coast Indians“, 1954, given a lukewarm review by Helen Codere), Clark also invents the fantasy that “potlach” here is “the whiskey feast…through which a host might confer upon himself a high degree of prestige.”

Come again?!  I try to speak well of everyone, but I have to resist a historian stepping outside of his expertise and passing his anthropological-linguistic imaginings as citable fact.

It’s another of the endless examples where hiring a linguist would have provided solid and reliable scholarly results.  What a shame.  Read with caution.

(Clark isn’t the only one to fall for the “whiskey feast” claim; it’s sagely referred to with the [wholly invented, add an asterisk] Chinuk Wawa phrase “whiskey potlatch” on page 108 of 1975’s “The Indian in America” by Wilcomb E. Washburn.  Argh.  Citing previous scholars without evaluating their ideas is another status-enhancing custom of the White.)