Keel-A-Pie, the Chinuk Wawa operetta (first page)


Klallam family (image credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve already presented you the article that led me to finding this long-rumored but previously undiscovered operetta in Chinook Jargon (and English).

And I gave you the images of all of its pages.

Now as promised, I begin transcribing “Keel-A-Pie”, the Chinuk Wawa operetta by Cornelius Hanford — and adding my interpretive comments.

Which, for this first page, amount to my noting that Hanford’s spellings of several of the Jargon words are unique to him. So maybe he was working from personal experience of the language rather than from a published dictionary, which is likely enough because he was an early pioneer.

I’ll just add, for contrast, that the plot précis below does not indicate close acquaintance with Native culture. This is the first time I’ve heard a potlatch characterized as a dying old man’s wish to preemptively bequeath his possessions. Nobody throws babies on the fire — that’s Old Testament perverseness. So is the communitywide apprehension of a vague evil spirit that has to be propitiated by sacrificing living things. Finally, my understanding of (click the following link for an extraordinary semi-insider view) the “black tamahnous” in the Olympic Peninsula is that it functioned more as the conventional counterpart to the “red tamahnous” secret society, regardless of the content of either, whereas the use of the phrase here comes off more like White dread of Native spiritual practices.

So enjoy!


An Indian Opera

PRELUDE — An ancient custom of Puget Sound Indians is for an old man to invite all of his tribe to a festival, merrymaking affair, called a Potlatch, for which he supplied food for feasting several days. Potlatch is a chinook word comprehending every manner of
transferring possession of things, especially applicable to giving for keeps. Realizing that time for enjoyment of his possessions is short, a venerable Indian makes a potlatch the occasion for disposing of all his wealth, in canoes, weapons, implements, trinkets and treasures by distribution in presents among his people. The assembled guests participate in singing, dancing and playing games, and orators recite traditions and boast of exploits.

THE PLOT — The opera is in two parts, the first comprises performance of a bird dance, love affair of a young couple, captivity of the maiden, her rescue, and a tragedy whereby the lover wins his bride. The second part represents a potlatch given by the hero after becoming an old man; for its annoyance by crying a baby is thrown upon an open fire; it being a fire god does not burn, and an eagle swoops down and carries it into the forest. Perceiving that a fire god has been taken from them consternation overwhelms the assemblage, interpreting the loss as an omen of a destructive conflagration to follow. Amid weeping, wailing and frenzied antics the biggest man proposes to propitiate evil spirits by sacrificing dogs and children with performance of the black tah-man-ous: the host silences him and commands decorous behavior while he goes with his hunting dog in quest of the child. After absence of a few hours he returns, bringing it back unharmed and restores the baby to its mother’s arms. With resumption of the interrupted festivities, the host distributes the valuables acquired during his lifetime. The title of the opera — Keel-a-pie — is a chinook word, which means return, or come back.


MOSES, the young lover, and host of the potlatch.
MIHMY [‘downstream’], an orphan girl loved by Moses.
LEM-E-EYE [‘old woman’], grandmother of Mihmy.
SAMPSON, a strong man, but a coward.
KLALE [‘black’][,]
PILL [‘red’][,]
LOKIT [‘four(th)’][,]
KWASS [‘afraid’] Five conspirators who capture Mihmy, and are all killed by Moses.
SIX VENERABLE INDIANS, who constitute a Council.

Song for curtain raiser — “Darling Nellie Gray” [listen to it here]