S’Klallam gambling song in Chinuk Wawa

slahal lummi 1930

Slahal, Lummi, circa 1930 (image credit: Pinterest)

Has anyone done the research to explain just why Native gambling songs are so often in Chinuk Wawa, rather than other languages?

The author we’re looking at today suggests it’s because of intertribal gambling that the Jargon exists!

The following quote from her, including a song I hadn’t heard before, may be useful for examining the question.

This is taken from Erna Gunther’s monograph about the Salish people of the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, “Klallam Ethnography” (Seattle: University of Washington, 1927) (University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, volume 1, number 5, pages 171-314).

From page 277, I quote a full paragraph in the belief that its background information will help folks translate future Chinuk Wawa lyrics. My comments follow.

Gambling songs. There is a large body of gambling songs which are used at every potlatch. It is interesting that a man who had once been a professional gambler could not recall any songs with Klallam words. They are all sung in the Chinook jargon, or with words from Vancouver Island. The same songs are used everywhere; this perhaps accounts for the lingua franca. In the hand game when the guessing side loses the bones, this song of derision is sung in jargon:

Klahowyah maika staham
How good your guess

Maika tsipi haili hi
Your mistake (syllables of derision)

Hai li hi hai li hi.

In addition to the songs used by the spectators during the game, the professional gamblers have songs which give them success. These are always acquired through some spirit experience or through inheritance. A man was wounded and his spirit told him to go into the salt water and sing his song. As he sang his arms began to move as though he were shaking the bones in the hand game although before they had been so sore from his wounds that he could not move them. When he came out of the water they were healed. He used this song later to help sick people. His nephew saw him helping a dying person with it once. The old man told him to use this song when he is gambling but the nephew never made use of it. The song had no words, just syllables to carry the tune. It was sung while the player had the bones.

I want to examine the Chinuk Wawa lyrics, in hopes of advancing the study of this genre. I’m pretty sure there’s a typographical error in Gunther’s version:

Klahowyah maika staham
ɬax̣á(w)ya(m) mayka sləhál
pitiful your stickgaming
(My translation) ‘Your stickgaming is ridiculous’
(Gunther’s translation) How good your guess

Maika tsipi haili hi
máyka t’sípi …
you wrong
(My translation) ‘You messed up’
(Gunther’s translation) Your mistake

Even though song lyrics are so often hard to translate because they’re so skeletal, lacking the abundant contextual clues of actual speech, in this case we have what we can call “typical” lyrics of their type. A lot of these songs are similar to epic rap battles…people artistically trading insults!

Two specific notes:

Gunther takes ɬax̣á(w)ya(m) in its function as a greeting; I understand it in its adjectival use. Gunther also perpetuates what I maintain is an old misconception among English-speakers, that this word is a question because it sounds a little bit like “How are you?” And that leads her to guess a meaning “How good (is) your guess?” which I believe is inaccurate.

Notice that the name of this type of “gambling”, sləhal, can also be a verb as we see here. Then you can translate it as “to play, to stickgame”, etc.