Portland’s First Ferry — The Massacre of ’56

(Warning: A disturbing scene to get language data from.)

I’m not going to reproduce the entire long article that gives us today’s quotation. Following the link if you’d like all the details.

Chief Chenoweth of the Watlala (Wasco/Hood River/Cascades Chinookan) Indians is quoted speaking while being hanged after a violent conflict with settlers in 1856:


The knot was either badly tied or the drop was not far enough to kill, for, as he dangled between earth and heaven, he was heard to mutter, “Wake nika quash copa memaloose,” when he was silenced by a bullet.

— The Portland Oregon Daily Journal of November 27, 1904, page 28, column 5

It’s notable when the old newspapers don’t bother translating the Chinook Jargon they quote. Judging from the subject matter of such quotations, editors assumed that the White readers who formed an appropriate target audience would get the gist. Others could justifiably left wondering, in the interest of decorum.

In the present instance, even well past the frontier era in Oregon, I suppose the main reason for leaving Chenoweth’s words in the Jargon was that his defiant message — contradicting previous lines in this newspaper article that paint him as having tried to bargain for his life but consistent with this early settler’s account — would have still been deeply unpopular in Settler society:

< Wake nika quash copa memaloose >
wík náyka k’wás(h) kʰapa mímlus(t)
not I fear for dying
‘I’m not afraid of death.’

Such a brief sentence can still be valuable in other ways. For linguistics and ethnohistory, Chenoweth’s words, uttered as the Grand Ronde Reservation was just a-borning, can be taken as fluent Oregon-dialect Native Chinuk Wawa of the time.

  • He uses the typical negator < wake > (wik), not the < halo > hílu) that we see so much in other regions.
  • And he uses the preposition < copa > (kʰapa), not the conditional subordinator pus — which in his Chinookan language meant a counterfactual ‘if’! — thus specifying acknowledgment of the fact that he’s dying.