Christianizing Indians by teaching them shorthand

Add this to our scrapbook of historical documents on the Chinook Writing…

The Christian Work and Evangelist (volume 81, number 2069; October 13, 1906) carries this account of how well Father Le Jeune is doing with teaching “the Chinooks” of British Columbia “this sign language” with its “queer newspaper” composed in its own “type” face “in the nearest city”.

The region’s tribes are in fact Salish, Chinook Writing is an alphabet rather than hieroglyphics, Kamloops Wawa is formatted like any other newspaper, it was always handwritten because a font for its shorthand is a virtual impossibility, and that work occurred via mimeograph at Kamloops, eventually visually reproduced in New Westminster or back East. Not to mention that Le Jeune had actually discontinued Chinuk Wawa issues of his newspaper at the end of 1904.

Clearly, some skepticism is needed in reading this article, but it’s still truly informative.

[page 473:]

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Christianizing Indians by Teaching Them Shorthand

Father Le Jeune Reduces the Language of British Columbian Indians to Written Characters to Enable Them to Read the Bible

As the twenty fourth annual meeting of the Lake Mohonk Indian Conference is to be held at Lake Mohonk Oct. 17 to 19 inclusive, it seems a fitting time to note the great success that Father Le Jeune is having with the Chinooks in teaching them to read and write. In fact they have showed themselves so apt that medals were presented to them by King Edward and the Pope for their efficiency in this respect. We are informed that the Chinooks are the only tribe of real Indian shorthand writers in the world. They contribute and subscribe to the queerest newspaper now being published anywhere. They belong to the Kamloops and Douglas river [Douglas Lake, Spahomin]

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bands living in the interior of British Columbia. Two thousand of these natives have mastered the art of shorthand and regularly read all the news pertaining to the tribe and individuals in their curious shorthand journal called the Kamloops Wawa. Bibles, hymn and prayer books are likewise printed in this sign language.

This remarkable advance in Indian culture was brought about through the efforts of a French Catholic missionary, Father Le Jeune, who was sent out from Brittany a few years ago. Kamloops, the headquarters of Father Le Jeune, is some three hundred miles northeast of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Just across the river, a few miles up from the town, is the main Indian village, or “rancherie.” Here the natives congregate in large numbers at certain seasons, as it is the most important center of Indian life for some fifty to one hundred miles around.

Their occupations are principally hunting, fishing, ranching and farming on a limited scale. Prior to the appearance of the priest the crafty “shamans,” claiming by the aid of supernatural power to be able to cure disease and to ward off evil spirits, completely held the somewhat superstitious people in their powerful grasp. Besides hindering their progress in religious matters, a good deal of property was squeezed from the people by their evil influence. These so-called “magical prophets” fled at the coming of the missionary, who exposed their tricks and false creeds to the Indians. Before the French priest began his work the tribes of this locality, living along the canyons and banks of the Thompson and Fraser rivers in British Columbia, were unable to write their tongue and had no written literature, although each possessed a language which had an extensive mythology, preserved and rehearsed by frequent recitation. To-day these two tribes and some half dozen or more of others are writing letters to one another in their several languages, reading newspapers, the Bible, prayer and song books, all by means of shorthand.

Father Le Jeune found that to be successful in his mission it

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would be absolutely necessary to devise a system of communication. In order, therefore, to arouse and hold their interest by means of placing instructive printed matter in their hands, having neither written language nor grammar of their own, he conceived the novel and useful idea of teaching the Indians of the various tribes to write their language, and showed them a sign to represent each sound they uttered. In pronouncing their words the signs employed were simply the shorthand symbols of the Duployan phonographic system. After working out an Indian vocabulary in these shorthand signs the priest, in early fall, when the village was thickly populated, first showed and explained his system to one of the bright Indian boys. He took to it intuitively and set to work to decipher some Indian prayers which Father Le Jeune gave him.

[page 474:]

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Before Christmas he had pretty thoroughly learned the art of writing his language, and, pleased with his quick success, he set to work at once to instruct his friends. The new “talk language” created widespread interest and the Indians were all eager to learn it. Soon the young as well as the adult members of each habitation for miles around were engaged in practising the new method of communication.

These Indians in summer live in wigwams made of poles covered with mats, in birch bark huts and log cabins in winter. A glimpse into one of these rude abodes revealed interesting groups of shorthand students eagerly pursuing their favorite subject. During first few months of their schooling it was found that as soon as a few Indians of a camp had learned to read and write they were extremely anxious to teach the whole community. Consequently, Father Le Jeune taught a few members of each village and left it to them to teach their neighbors.

They made rather slow progress in the summer, owing to fact that many were away at work ranching and picking berries, but in the winter, when the Indians returned home, they devoted whole nights to study, and in this way made excellent progress and soon became proficient. After about five hundred or more had mastered this system it became necessary that their interest be retained by placing reading matter before them, and thus one of the main purposes of the priest was realized, for he wished them to be able to read the Bible as well as other of his religious books. His task was to provide this literature printed in the characters of the system.

Father Le Jeune was not satisfied with teaching his Indian parishioners to write letters of their own language by means of shorthand and to read a paper in their native tongue, but he has published various parts of the Bible in nine different languages spoken by the several different tribes in this region, using the same method, and still is laboring on additional publications. Shorthand, he claims, is so very much simpler than English orthography that he takes no credit to himself for this wonderfully novel work of being the first to teach these natives to write. Then, as they apply the symbols to their own language, they are not obliged to learn the grammar and spelling of any other language in addition to the part of committing the shorthand alphabet.

The Indians now using this phonetic system for writing are some half dozen tribes or more living along the Thompson and Fraser rivers. It is in these languages that the prayers, hymns, parts of the Bible and the Church ritual have been published. So expert have these Indians become in their shorthand work that they have been awarded medals from a recent shorthand exhibition held in France, where their efforts in the shape of compositions were a wonder and surprise to all European stenographers and other beholders.

A few years ago Father Le Jeune took Louis, the chief of the shorthand writing Indians, and Chief Chilliheeta [Chilliheetza] on a four months’ tour through Europe. The party visited France and England and while in London called on King Edward at Buckingham Palace.

Probably the most memorable event, however, was a special audience given at the Vatican by the late Pope Leo XIII. He gave each of the chiefs a medal and a special one for Father Le Jeune, and also sent two thousand or more through the priest to his far off Indian children in British Columbia. These are awarded yearly to the meritorious and studious natives who excel in shorthand and otherwise aid in looking after the education of others. The competition is keen for these coveted souvenirs and to win one is looked upon as a marked honor and considered a great event by the lucky recipient. The focus of all religious and intellectual activities and the one point of pilgrimage from long distances by land and river is Father Le Jeune’s church. This structure, a white frame one, similar to those found in villages of Eastern Canada and the United States, was built by the Indians and presented to their highly appreciated pastor. They have also made him a present of a carriage and team to enable him to make his visits to far off villages. The church has a cheerful interior, with comfortable pews. Strikingly odd, however, to the white visitor are the hymn and prayer books, pages of which are full of the curious shorthand symbols.

Father Le Jeune preaches in several of the native dialects of the country, especially “Chinook,” the ordinary trade language used between different tribes and whites throughout much of British Columbia, Alaska, and the northwestern coast of the United States.

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On church and feast days the whole community attend services. The church is lighted by acetylene gas and illustrated lectures are frequently given by the pastor. In the rear of church are the rooms where Father Le Jeune edits his queer shorthand paper. This has sixteen pages, about the size of the average book devoted to church and local information.

“Wawa” is the word for “talk” in the Chinook jargon; hence Father Le Jeune has chosen it as a name for his quaint newspaper. It was printed on a mimeograph for the first year, but after this the priest succeeded in having type made for it and getting it printed on one of the presses of the nearest city. Father Le Jeune’s queer “Wawa” and his band of Indian shorthand writers certainly present a novel picture of progressive Indian life.

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