Two old saws

A couple of persistent stories about Chinuk Wawa.

From “The Story of Metlakahtla” by Henry S. Wellcome (London: Saxon & Co., 1887). It’s a narrative of how the missionary Reverend William Duncan came to influence some British Columbia Tsimshian people to found a new Christian community in Alaska.



(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Our first excerpt documents Mr. Duncan’s procurement of a Chinook Jargon translator.. Might typical for the era, it leaves details unclear. But we know from other sources that hereditary chief Arthur Wellington Clah and Duncan shared no language more robustly than the Jargon.

Digressing for a moment, let me share that Clah kept a diary, which was quite a rare thing among BC Native people so early in the history of contact. It’s a wonderful document of frontier life on the Coast, and I love it even more because it’s written in Clah’s colloquial English, distinct from any standard variety. There’s Chinuk Wawa to be found in those pages, and I look forward to reading it now that it’s published.

Mr. Duncan carped about limitations that he perceived in Chinook Jargon — which is a subject that’s open to debate — but I can’t fault him for laboring to learn Tsimshian and speak to the people in their own language. He wanted to circumvent the helplessness that comes from relying on translators, which he colorfully illustrates with an oft-repeated chestnut about another missionary’s Jargon interpreter…

Without a moment’s
delay he secured the services of [Arthur Wellington] Clah, one of the
most intelligent Tsimshean natives, to assist him in
learning their language in his quarters within the
walls of the fort. No white man having yet mas-
tered their tongue, all intercourse with these people
had been through the medium of the Chinook jar-
gon, and, a sign language common to the coast.
The jargon, however, was too incomplete for teach-
ing purposes, hence, Mr. Duncan, saw that to reach
the inner life of the people, he must gain a thorough
knowledge of the language, in which they formu-
lated their thoughts.

With great patience and rare ingenuity, by means
of signs, gestures, and objects, Mr. Duncan soon
secured from Clah a fair vocabulary of Tsimshean
words, which he wrote down phonetically, and as
soon as possible began to construct sentences. At
the end of several months he was able to write out
a simple address, explanatory of his mission among
them. However, in the meantime, through Clah, he
had already conveyed to the Indians, the information
that a white man had come, not, to barter, or get
gain, but to bring them a message from the white
man’s God, and to teach them the knowledge of
those things in which the white man, was superior
to the red man. This naturally excited the curi-
osity of the Indians, and finally, when Mr. Duncan,


ventured out among them, in spite of the warning
of the officers of the fort, he was warmly received
by the chiefs and people, who regarded him, as some
supernatural being.

In deference to their tribal customs, Mr. Duncan,
found it necessary to speak to the people of each
of the nine Tsimshean tribes, at the houses of their
respective chiefs, during the same day. In some
instances, when Mr. Duncan, saw that the people
gave more attention to- his buttons, or the cut of
his garments, than to his words; he repeated his
address until they did listen and comprehend his

Mr. Duncan, had not ventured to address them
until he felt certain he could make himself clearly
understood. He had made it a special study to
acquire their picturesque and expressive figures of
speech. Literal translations into Indian tongues
are very barren, and often extremely droll. One
dignitary of the Church, who began his address to
a coast tribe — ” Children of the forest ” — was not a ♦
little confused when he found that his interpreter
could only render it, in the Chinook jargon, Tanass
man cupah hyyu stick — signifying, little men among
many sticks or stumps. (pages 9-10)

Another of the themes that recur when you’re researching Chinook Jargon is an association of the pidgin with hand gestures. This is mentioned above, and the following puts it into Duncan’s own words:

I begged that I might be permitted to
live in a stockade that had been erected by some white men
up there for trade ; I begged to live there until I could
speak the Indian language. I was given that privilege, and
for eight months I did nothing but study the language, for I
did not believe in mutilating the Gospel by going and talk-
ing to them in broken English, or in Chinook jargon, as I
wanted to give it to them in their native language. I there-
fore for eight months did little, or nothing but to keep my-
self close in the stockade with an Indian, who did not know
English. By the acting of words I got a good deal of his
language from him, and in eight months I was able to
preach. (page 385)

I can’t count how many times I’ve read, and heard in oral-history recordings, and been told to my face that hand gestures were frequent among Jargon users. Nothing has come to light to suggest a systematized sign language, but still it’s noteworthy that people saw fit to comment on this tendency. I mean, we all gesture when we talk, but we’re mostly unconscious of it. We have a little more awareness of ourselves and others waving our hands around when talking with those we don’t share a language with (thus the “jabbering and gesticulating foreigners” trope). But sain, as the word is in Kamloops Chinuk Wawa, came to be seen by many as an expected adjunct of Jargon.

Little guys in the trees and a bunch of hand-waving, there you go, two old Chinook saws!