Did Chinook Jargon ‘pish’ = all marine creatures?

File under Chinook Jargon expert witness, ethnoichthyology, ethnozoology, Chinook Jargon translator, etc.: 

salmon and rice

(Image credit: FineCooking.com)

The United States Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, cases #15-35824 and #15-35827, Brief of Appellees: Quileute Indian Tribe and Quinault Indian Nation, involves one of the numerous Pacific Northwest Native fishing-rights disputes to make their way through the judicial system in the last few decades.

General orientation: The Makah Tribe claimed its neighbors the Quileutes (et al.) had signed a treaty that, unlike the Makah’s own with the US government, failed to spell out the right to harvest specific marine mammals. Instead, the Treaty of Olympia/Quinault River Treaty of January 6, 1856 (like the other Gov. Isaac Stevens Treaties) mentions only “fish” as a resource that the signatory tribes retain rights over. The idea appears to be that the Makahs want first dibs on sea mammals.

Chinuk Wawa comes into play here, pretty prominently. I have something to say about that.

First off, the famous Boldt Decision of 1974 on Indian fishing found that:

Chinook Jargon, the trade language through which the treaties were negotiated, was capable of communicating general meanings of the treaty language, but incapable of expressing any technical legal meanings behind any of the treaty terms. (page 52)

This is obvious, on the simple grounds that the Jargon had never previously been applied to translating Western legal terminology. It amounts to observing that well over 99% of the world’s thousands of languages are incapable of accurately translating Governor Stevens’s treaty language with any accuracy. See what I’m doing here? This has nothing to do with the perceived inadequacies of pidgin-creole languages.

Then there’s a big chunk of discussion about the relevant official treaty language (i.e. the English wording) would have been translated into Chinook Jargon (and thence into Quileute and Quinault), based on the following being the entire verbiage that you can apply to harvesting sea life:

ARTICLE 3. The right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations…

The expert witness who was consulted about this issue was James Hoard, a linguist who has worked on a variety of languages including Quileute, Sanskrit, the Salish family, and English. I don’t know of any work by him on Chinuk Wawa, though he likely came across some in his 1960s-1970s field work; since I got my PhD in Chinook Jargon, I’m respectfully venturing into the matter.

Dr. Hoard observed that there was no generic term in Chinuk Wawa for sea mammals, that in any case Native interpreters and hearers might have simply expressed the intention of Article 3 as getting to obtain “food”, and that the treaty negotiators “most likely used the Chinook Jargon word pish“.

That last point is what I want to comment on.

I agree that the Jargon has essentially always had a generic term for all fin fish, whether it’s písh or, as we see at Grand Ronde and other places, sámən. But unlike 19th-century English-language usage, the Jargon as it has come to be massively documented from the 1980s onward would not use that term to include mammals, e.g. whales (kʰánis / ikuli) or seals (sáltsəqw-kúshu / sháwash-kúshu / ulx̣áyu). As always, I insist on taking Chinuk Jargon as its own entity with its own norms and rules, which was and is definitely the case. Even though pish and sámən came originally from English, they don’t behave the same as their English source words; the first came to have a narrower, and the second a broader, meaning than in the donor language.

Not that my quibbles would prevent a capable interpreter from expressing Governor Stevens’s intent via the Jargon. I like Dr. Hoard’s idea that folks could’ve referred, for example, to “food”, especially as it’s easy specify the marine context in the language; you can say t’ɬáp mə́kʰmək kʰapa sáltsəqw, for instance. (“Getting food from the sea.”)

I would point out, though, that a wording as broad as that would include shellfish, seaweed, herring eggs, you name it! So you choose your arguments in court. It would be equally easy for the Chinook Jargon translators at the treaty session to have said t’ɬáp pish pi ikuli pi ulx̣áyu (“getting fish and whales and seals”), etc., specifying the kinds of animals the Native people have a right to get.

Dr. Hoard was also asked how the Chinook Jargon used in the treaty sessions might have been interpreted into Quileute and Quinault for the great majority of attendees who understood those languages better than Jargon or English. He called attention to the terms in both languages that mean literally “(generic) salmon” and by extension “food”. Since I do some work with both of those languages, more of it on Quinault and its 3 close Salish relatives, I think I can point out that it’s open to question whether native speakers understood them to encompass sea mammals.

My sense instead is that their semantics worked this way: the prototypical “food” was understood as the staple protein, “salmon (of all kinds)”, so the latter word was used metaphorically. This is totally analogous to the well-known and widely spoken language Mandarin Chinese, where as I was taught “eat” is usually chī fànliterally “eat rice” as in nǐ chīfàn le ma “Have you eaten?”.

There’s little or no justification for inversely claiming that the literal word “salmon” in each language could be applied to any and every kind of food; as I understand these languages’ lexical structures, it would be as marked a usage — maybe just sounding like you were joking — to apply the “generic salmon” word to whales or seals as it would be to refer to edible roots and deer with it. Would a Mandarin Chinese speaker call a fish “rice”???

I’ll end my discussion of that point by sharing one relevant fact from Quinault Salish. There, there is a separate word (s)ʔíɬən for “food”, which only means “food”…anything you ingest for sustenance. And Quileute has totally generic words for “food”, not least the delightful bá·ba “food (in baby-talk)”. Thus, the entire argument over whether “(generic) salmon” applies to mammals is, well, a red herring 🙂