The Tattooed Artist, or, doggerel galore

A collection of late-1800s doggerel poetry gets added to our dusty heap, with surprising if mixed results!

Philetus Norris

Philetus W. Norris (image credit: Wikipedia)

It’s “The Calumet of the Coteau: And Other Poetical Legends of the Border / Also, a glossary of Indian names, words, and Western provincialisms” by Philetus W. Norris [1821-1885], Five Years Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1883).

One poem in this book, “The Tattooed Artist” (pages 101-109), is word pemmican. It’s interlarded with selected Native words of the Yellowstone region — and, for some reason, Chinuk Wawa, which is not known to have been used on that side of the Rocky Mountains. I notice in another of the volume’s poems, “Bold Hero of the Border (Gen. Nelson D. [sic] Miles)”, that the word Che-nook stands symbolically for all Indians, contrasted with the Eagle of the US Army. (Ugh.) So you can make what you will of the Chinook Jargon that’s in the following.

First I’ll let you read the entirety of “The Tattooed Artist”, then I’ll give a little commentary.

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The only portion I’ll bother copying out & discussing here is the preposterous song with its fictionalized Chinuk Wawa, and Norris’s footnotes telling what he’s trying to make it mean.

(I’m not the only one to find this passage fantastic, I see; it’s singled out as “swamping” Norris’s poetry, in an article in The Nation in 1883.)

[page 105:]

“Il-la-hi [1], you come to see,  
Lo-lo-lo [2] you want to be; 
Chit-woot [3] sko-kum [4], bold you come, 
Mos-mos [5], stupid to your doom, 
Ab-sa-ra-ka, til-la-cume [6].  
Que-u-que-u [7], lance and plume, 
Min-ne-ke-wa cannot save, 
Min-ne-wa-wa branches wave, 
Kam-ooks [8] gaunt around you glare, 
Ka-kaws [9] circle in the air. 
By the blood of kindred slain
Thine shall lance and fagot drain. 
I-san-tan-ka feel our ire, 
Wa-kan-sche-cha, in the fire.”

[1] Chinook jargon, country our. [A novel spelling. Quite a specific translation suggestion by Norris, for metrical fit! The word means ‘land’.]

[2] Chinook jargon, conqueror. [Eh? Only tolo, which essentially means ‘win’, is found in Chinuk Wawa dictionaries; this has to be a copyist’s error combined with Norris’s intentional reduplication for metrical fit.]

Chinook jargon, bear. [A novel spelling. Here Norris does not suggest a metrically matching English translation.]

Chinook jargon, brave. [Joel Palmer 1847 has this spelling defined as ‘stout’. The word fundamentally means ‘strong’, but among English-speakers it came to have the further adjectival senses ‘courageous/brave’ and ‘excellent’. It looks like Norris had the racially stereotyped English noun ‘brave’ (Native man) in mind here — ‘bear warrior’ — if not ‘bearishly brave’, a construction alien to Chinuk Wawa. Otherwise he’s using a non-Chinuk Wawa word order of noun + adjective, striving for poetic effect.]

Chinook jargon, buffalo. [A novel spelling. The word typically means ‘cow, cattle’ unless you specify otherwise, as with John Booth Good’s 1880 “wild moosmos”.]

Chinook jargon, enemies. [A novel spelling, probably an error for *til-la-cums with the English -s plural that’s frequently found on it. The word actually means ‘friends’ when it doesn’t generically mean ‘people’!]

Chinook jargon, circle-circle. [Normally ‘ring’. According to Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation, the 1878 “Waitt” dictionary out of Victoria BC ( = 6th edition of F.N. Blanchet put out by McCormick of Portland) has this spelling of the word, defined as ‘circle’.]

Chinook jargon, dogs. 

Chinook jargon, crows or ravens. [A novel spelling, pluralized for anglophone readers’ benefit with the English suffix -s.]

All in all, I take Norris’s unique spellings and some of the distinctive translations of his Chinook Jargon words as suggesting he took notes from the speech of somebody who had personal experience of the language from farther west. Nothing in his biography suggests that Norris had spent time in the Pacific Northwest, but the last couple years of his life were employed in ethnological research for the Smithsonian, which could be a clue. These facts make today’s material unexpectedly interesting.

On the other hand, I’m no fan of twisting and stretching a language for the kinds of effects he’s going for here.

On the balance, I’m comfortable thinking of today’s material primarily as second-rate doggerel, but making sure to add it to our storehouse of Chinuk Wawa knowledge.