At least a bit of Chinuk Wawa in Idaho

Albert Deane Richardson

Albert Deane Richardson (image credit: Wikipedia)

I started writing a post today about why there’s so little Chinook Jargon documented in Idaho. It got involved. I’ll share it as a separate article soon. Today let’s just look at one of the rare examples of CJ in that state!

Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean” is a book by the very popular reporter Albert Deane Richardson (1833-1869), published in Hartford, Connecticut by the American Publishing Company in 1867.

From the Wikipedia biography of him, we know little of Richardson’s life between his escape from a Confederate jail in the Civil War and the two separate occasions he was shot by his girlfriend’s husband.

But the book we’re looking at today helps to fill in that gap. Page 502 tells something of Richardson’s time in Lewiston, Idaho in 1865. To my surprise, Chinook Jargon is mentioned.

There’s so little evidence of Jargon use in Idaho — outside of some early limited instances around Fort Boise on the Oregon Trail, and its late but rather strong presence in Kootenai Indian country in the far northern panhandle. Like Richardson’s life story, we know extraordinarily little of Chinuk Wawa in the spaces and times between.

If Richardson wasn’t just plain dropping the Jargon in to give some Northwestern “local color” (and that was certainly a horse that got beaten to bits in US literature in the 1800s), then this here is interesting stuff.

Lewiston was founded as a gold-rush community in the relatively late year of 1861. So in ’65, everyone there was from somewhere else.

The implications of that that I’d like to highlight are twofold.

(A) Lewiston is in Nez Perce traditional country. As one of the first-contacted tribes in the area — they met David Thompson, Lewis and Clark, the earliest missionaries, and fur traders — the Nez Perces did know Jargon. It’s just that somehow, so little of it is documented. (Here is a hymn they sang, recorded in 1911, that I hope to hear some day.)

(B) Lewiston was likely populated via the fairly nearby river ports of the Snake and Walla Walla Rivers, such as Wallula. James W. Watt’s “Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860’s”, republished by Ye Galleon Press of Fairfield, WA in 1978, makes plenty of mention of the connections among these places.

Both of these points situate Lewiston with respect to known Chinook Jargon history.

I’m curious about Richardson’s characterization of CJ’s role in Lewiston as a kind of source of miner’s slang words in English. That really rings true, paralleling what we’ve seen of Pacific Northwest logger lingo. It inclines me to think that the Jargon was present in that city less for any purpose of talking with Nez Perces, and more for its ability to make you sound like you knew your way around this new country. (From Whites’ perspective.)

Well then, here it is:

There are about fifty Indian tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. No two speak precisely the same language; but a strange patois, known as the ‘ Chinook Jargon,’ is comprehended by nearly all of them, and by most white settlers. As in all rudimentary languages, the same word is either a noun or a verb, according to the context; as ‘Ni-wa-wa,’ — ‘I speak,’ or, ‘My word.’ Here are a few common terms of the Jargon, which frequently enters, as a sort of local slang, into general conversation:

Brave, skookum tum-tum.
Boots, stick-shoes.
Boil, lip lip.
Bag, la sack.
Bell, ting-ting.
Bow, stick-musket.
Cat, puss.
Cold, cold.
Come on, hyar.
Door, la port.
Day, sun.
Great, hyas.
Half, sit-cum.
Handkerchief, hanker-chum.
Iron, chink-a-min.
Laugh, he-he.
Mind, tum-tum.
Sorry, sick tum-tum.
Window, she-lock-um.
Thank you, mer-cie.
One, ict. 
Two, moxt.
Three, clone.
Four, lock-et.
Five, quin-um.
Six, tah-hum.
Seven, sin-a-mox.
Eight, stoat-kin.
Nine, quoits.
Ten, tot-li-lum.
Twenty, moxt tot-li lum.
Thirty, clone-tot-li-lum.
One hundred, Ict tock-a-mon-nuck.
One thousand, tot-li-lum tock-a-moo-nuck.

Richardson’s spellings are highly conventional, so I’m inferring that he cribbed this selection of words from some published source. A lot of it seems to closely match Granville Stuart’s “Montana As It Is”, a book that I wrote about recently on this website.

Oh, and Richardson’s < Ni-wa-wa > for ‘I speak’ is nothing to get excited about: while < ni > resembles the famous short-form pronouns of Grand Ronde creole Chinuk Wawa, it’s just a typographical error. Chances of those forms existing so early in GR’s existence as a reservation without having been documented by anyone else, and influencing a mostly White mining settlement hundreds of miles away, approach zero.

All of which reduces my confidence that this vocabulary represents the author’s personal experience of Jargon, such as it may have been used, in Lewiston.

But this pretty-much-negative result is valuable, too, for our understanding of Chinuk Wawa’s history in central Idaho. It tends to reinforce our sense that in that region, it was mainly the Nez Perce tribe, with its long contact history and enduring connections with other Jargon-speaking Indians, that ever had much stake in this language.