Other Conundrums…Henry Tsang’s “Utter Jargon”


(Image credit: HenryTsang.ca)

A site-specific Chinuk Wawa public art piece, Kamloops, 1993.

Canadian artist Henry Tsang created an installation using Chinook Jargon that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

His “Utter Jargon” at the Kamloops Art Gallery and City Archives quite appropriately made not just the language but its old Kamloops-area “Chinook Writing” (shorthand) newly visible. (I’m just showing a couple images; go to his website for a richer experience.)

I love it, of course. I went on to write my dissertation about that stuff! (Not the art; the language and alphabet.)


(Image credit: HenryTsang.ca)

Producing this piece involved a name you may know. Duane Pasco was at that time the preeminent public face of Chinuk Wawa, and he was called on to translate a 1910 BC Indian chiefs’ “memorial” to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, preserved for posterity in English, back into the Jargon.

Me being me, I have a couple of curiosities about “Utter Jargon”.

One is why kanaka got translated into English by Tsang as “kanak”. In my experience that word is limited in reference to the Native people of New Caledonia — by which I don’t mean the old name of British Columbia, but the islands in the South Pacific!

Number two is how Tsang came up with the sentence < Mika tikegh Boston wawa? > for ‘Do you understand English?’ My search of the literature finds no instances of that sentence from old times or documented Jargon use, and we wouldn’t expect to find it either: it literally means ‘Do you want/like English?’ An unusual question that would be, outside of a classroom setting.

I noticed that sentence on page 140 of a critical evaluation of “Utter Jargon” by Monika Kin Gagnon, “Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art” (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000). She has useful things to say about this work of Tsang’s and its significance — go and read.

And because “a couple” = 3, I wonder who did the Chinook Writing calligraphy. It’s very good, neat form, although the separation of the final “sh” letter in < siwash > at the top of this article is unexpected.