Gi-a-wak (doggerel)

“Should you ask me, whence these stories?”
— H.W. Longfellow

Kitkatla totem pole

There’s evidence in the following “Song of Hiawatha” clone that Chinook Jargon lies beneath.  For instance:

  • You have the overt “Shaped his lips to Chinook Jargon / After fashion of the traders”.
  • There are also phrases like “talk man” and “fire sticks”, which could be calqued on wawa-man and paya-stik in CJ.
  • Even the stress pattern on every occurrence of the word cánoe (highlighted in red below) calls to mind how BC white folks pronounce the Shuswap First Nation place name Canim [kǽnəm] Lake.

Certainly not CJ, but interesting too, if any of my readers can tell more about the “Kit-kat-la” (Sm’algyax/Tsimshian-language) origins of the words “Gi-a-wak” and “nok-nok”, I’d be way obliged.

Longtime readers of my site will know that I collect old Chinook Jargon-related doggerel, i.e. popular poetry of times gone past.  At some point I picture myself performing this stuff in public, with the seriousness of sentiment it was written in.  (Which I think will seem unintentionally hilarious to my audiences.)  The following  romanticized verses fairly scream to be accompanied by hand drums, but what a kettle of fish that opens up…

Here is today’s find, with its original 1893 preface.




“Turns them  to shape, and gives to airy nothing
a local habitation and a name.”–Shake’s.

The following and other Indian legends and  traditions were gathered during a visit to the  Kit-kat-la, Bella-bellaBella-coola, Kim-Squit and  other tribes on the north-west coast of British  America. Among the Indians, each family has a  crest or totem, which, like a coat-of-arms, is peculiar to the family, and is carved, not only on a  massive pole which stands before the house, but  on all the household belongings. Attached to this  totem is the family tradition of how the crest  came to be adopted. This tradition may be related only by the owner of the totem.

While a member of an expedition sent by the  government to quell some disturbances among  the north-west coast tribes, the writer became  acquainted with the “talk-man” or story-teller of  the Kit-kat-la tribe, a number of whom were taken  along on the peace-making expedition to the  other villages. Many pleasant hours were spent  in listening, through the kindness of an interpreter, to a succession of wierd [SIC] tales, rich in  dreamy oriental imagery, often wildly eloquent,  and possessing a completeness of detail worthy  of a higher intelligence than these people are  supposed to possess. Any question with regard  to the impossible features of the story, is met with the smiling reply of “Nok-nok,” meaning,  the power of the individual to perform supernatural feats. — J.F. BLEDSOE


Near the village, standing lonely,
Was a giant pole, a totem
Hewn in shape so grim, fantastic,
That the traveller paused and eyed it.
Long he gazed, then turned and questioned
Him, the guide who stood beside him,
Shaped his lips to Chinook jargon;  
After fashion of the traders;
“What’s the story on this totem–
Whose the hands that hewed its outline–
Wherefore guards it now no doorway?”
Then the answer came, but slowly,
From the guide who stood beside him:
“Gi-a-wak, is called the totem–
Dead the hands that hewed its outline.
Long ago the timbers rotted,
Of the doorway that it guarded.
But to-night, beside the fire-sticks,
You may ask, and hear the story
From an old man, living lonely,
He the last to bear the totem.”

Round the fire-sticks flashing redly,
Ring on ring of swarthy faces
Greet the traveller on his entrance.
Huge the house of mighty timbers,
Hewn for years with patient labor.
Every post, and all the rafters
Bore the emblem called the Bird God,
Gi-a-wak, the bird god totem.
Room they made beside the firelight,
Gave him seat of graven cedar.
Over head were strings of salmon,
Skins of otter, and the fur seal,
Lines and nets, and canoe paddles.
Long the silence was unbroken,
While the fresh-fed fire lit redly
On the faces stolid, dreamy.
They, the men of the Kit-Kat-La,
Closer drew, and bent to listen,
As the old man, gaunt and  wrinkled,
From his pipe the ashes scattered.
Then he told them all the tale of
Gi-a-wak, the bird god totem.

Long ago, beside that inlet,
Dwelt the two sons of a chieftain,
Wayward boys who would not listen
When he told their totem story.
Deep beneath the inlets’s waters
Dwelt a sea god, grim and awful.
Feared was he by the Kit-kat-Iaw
When his voice had come in warning:
“Throw no shells into the water.”
But the two sons of the chieftain
Wayward boys who would not listen,
Only mocked the sea god’s warning.
“We can swim and paddle swiftly.
Not for us the sea god’s warning”
Then the elder said, ‘We’ll try him.’
Then his brother brought him clam-shells
Loaded high a canoe with them
Gave a paddle to his brother,
Saying: “Steer into the center
Cast the shells, and I will watch you.”
Straight he steered into the center,
Cast the shells into the inlet.
Sudden rose, in wild commotion
All the waves, and overturned him,
Drew him down and closed above him.

How he reached it, never knew he,
Life returning, found him lying
On the smooth and sandy bottom ;
Whilst above him bent a maiden.
Tall she was, and fair to look at,
With a voice that gentle, winning,
Soothed away the fear that filled him.
“Life is spared because my father
Far away is holding council.
Knew you not my father’s warning:
Throw no shells into the water?
Rise, and we will go and find him.”
Then the sea god’s daughter led him
Far away across the bottom,
Till he spied a mighty doorway.
Rough the slabs of stone that formed it;
On a shaft of stone before it
Saw he carved an unknown totem–
Nameless still–the sea god’s totem.
Followed in the sea god’s daughter;
Took a seat beside the fire-sticks;
Eyed the old man, sitting grimly,
Fierce and still, beside the fire-sticks.
Took the food the maiden brought him,
Slept and woke, and wondered greatly.

Dangers never press so closely
That the young think not of loving:
And the maiden’s tender glances
Moved the young man’s heart within him.
[E’e]r the times he woke and wondered,
[At] the old man, sitting grimly,
Fierce and still, beside the fire-sticks,
Then the silence, long, was broken.
Said the old man, speaking slowly:
“I had thought at first to kill you,
Then my daughter’s love kept speaking;
For her sake you now are living.
You must love and keep her always,
Never wander in your loving;
When you do you then will lose her.”

Then the young man’s eyes with slumber
Heavy grew, and when he wakened,
Stood again beside the inlet;
Marvelled at the change around him.
Then the maiden, standing by him,
Told him what had wrought the changes.
“Four the times you woke and wondered,
Four the days you thought were passing;
Forty years in fact, were passing.”
Few are they who will remember
How you sank into the inlet.’

Then the old men made him welcome,
And the young men gathered, eager;
Listened while he told his story;
Saw the sea god’s daughter standing
Fairer far than the Kit-kat-la.
Many hands were stretched to aid him;
Wide the house he builded for her;
Round her wrapped the skin of otter;
Stored up salmon ‘gainst the,winter.
And the sea god’s daughter helped him,
Twined his nets, and twisted fish-line;
Made the fire-sticks crackle brightly,
When he came in from the fishing.
Long they dwelt in peace together,
But the water for the drinking
Never brought she from the river.
Daily must he take the bucket,
Bring it brimming from the river.
And the sea god’s daughter stirred it
With her finger–silent, watchful.
Much he marvelled at the stirring
But his questions got no answer.
Only once he pressed the question.
Then her face grew, to his fancy,
Like her father’s, sitting grimly,
Fierce and still, beside the fire-sticks.

Use will dull the keenest weapon.
In his eyes the sea gods daughter
Grew to seem a common maiden,
Like to one of his Kit-kat-la.
Then.his heart began to wander.
Lacked he not for those to help him
For the youth both fair and tall was.
Oft the maids of his Kit-kat-la
Smiled, and turning in their passing
Greeted him with tender glances.
‘Till at last his fitful fancy
On the fairest fixed, and settled.
Blotted out the sea god’s warning–
“Never wander in your loving,
When you do you then will lose her.”
Then his wife grew strangely silent,
Fierce and grim, as was her father.
Once his bucket at the river,
Filled the maiden of his fancy,
He in payment, turned and kissed her,
Thought no more, and brought the water.
Then the sea-god’s daughter stirred it
With her finger–silent, watchful.
Lo, its depths grew black and muddy,
Like to pine pitch grew the water.

Down she threw the gifts and tokens
That in love he first had given.
And her face grew pale with sorrow,
And her voice was strangely gentle,
Like the day when first she found him–
“Time has turned your roving fancy,
Blotted out the sea god’s warning–
Never wander in your loving,
When you do you then will lose her–
And you thought I was Kit-kat-la,
Clingling [SIC], loving, though forgotten.
Let the other come and help you;
Twine your nets, and twist your fish-line;
Make the fire-sticks crackle brightly
When you come in from the fishing.
Strange the road he travels over,
Who again this sea god’s daughter
Brings a wife from out the inlet.”
Vain the arms outstretched to hold her;
Vain the tardy love returning.
Swift she turned and sought the water,
Like a seal, her swimming, diving;
And the angry waves repulsed him,
Would not let him follow after,
Cast him back among the drift-wood.

Long he sat there, silent, thinking;
And the lost one grew the dearer.
Then his silent doorway entered,
Made the rafters ring with calling,
Saw the fire-sticks black and smoking,
Turned away in hopeless sorrow.
Made a vow that he would find her,
Brave the sea-god, fierce and silent;
Lose his life, if but to find her.
Down he took his widest paddle,
Steered far out into the inlet,
Ever calling, listening, calling,
But no answer came to greet him.
‘Till at last, upon the water
Fell a shadow, and beside him,
Gi-a-wak, the bird-god, settled.
Heard his story, listened gravely,
Pondered on it, thinking deeply–
“There is need of such a Servant
For the household, will you serve me?
Long and hard must be the service,
But if faithful, I’ll reward you,
Bring again the sea-god’s daughter.”
Long his service, hard and faithful,
Dire the labor, grim, and nameless,
With his working, watching, waiting

And his face grew stolid, dreamy;
With his watching, and the waiting.
Then he finished all his labor;
All the tasks the bird-god set him;
Came and stood before his master,
Called again the words of service–
” ‘But if faithful, I’ll reward you,’
Bring again the sea-god’s daughter.”
Long the bird-god looked upon him,
Fell away the beak, and feathers,
And again the sea-god’s daughter
Stood before him, silent, tender.
Down lie took his broadest paddle,
Swiftly sped his canoe homeward.
And again the sea-god’s daughter
Twined his nets, and twisted fish-line;
Made the lire-sticks crackle brightly,
When he came in from the fishing.
And he carved another totem,
Gi-a-wak, the bird-god totem;
Stood it up before the doorway,
And his story often told he,
Told to heedless boys and husbands.
So the traveller, eager, listening,
Heard the story of the totem–
Gi-a-wak, the bird-god totem.

— The Nelson (BC) Miner, Saturday, October 14, 1893, page 4, columns 1-2