Chief Joseph’s words to me, and what I think they mean

chief joseph and ethnologist alice aletcher via interpreter james stuart

Chief Joseph, interpreter James Stuart, and ethnologist Alice Fletcher (image credit: WikiCommons)

Closing an address to a convention of bankers, Edmund S. Meaney, University of Washington professor of history, reminisced:

chief joseph


Years ago while studying Indians, Chief Joseph, the greatest Indian developed in the Pacific Northwest, looked with his black, beady eyes into mine and rubbing his fingers together said: “Nica tumtum pe mica tumtum quanisum coli yowa; delate tillicums, nica pe mica.” Your and my heart run close together; so, good friends, you and I.

— page 286 of Meaney, “History of the Northwest“, Bulletin of the American Institute of Banking 4(2) (April 1922):279-286.

Breaking that down into a micro-dictionary (with Grand Ronde dictionary spellings parenthesized) for learners to spot the difference between Meany’s translation and the truer meaning:

  • coli (kúri) – ‘to run’
  • delate (drét) – ‘real’
  • mica (máyka) – ‘your; you’ (singular)
  • nica (náyka) – ‘my; I’
  • pe (pi) – ‘and’
  • quanisum (kwansəm) – ‘always’
  • tillicums (tílixam(s)) – ‘friends’
  • tumtum (tə́mtəm) – ‘heart’
  • yowa – ‘there’; I wonder whether the intended word was kakwa ‘the same’

Do you see the difference?