Sojourning Sisters

sojourning sisters

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Thank goodness, there’s another fine book by BC’s master historian Jean Barman to share with you!

Sojourning Sisters: The Lives and Letters of Jessie and Annie McQueen” by Jean Barman (University of Toronto Press, 2004) tells a heck of a story, and Chinuk Wawa is an important part of it.

Here’s the blurb:

Shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1886, two young sisters from Pictou County, Nova Scotia, took the train west to British Columbia. Jessie and Annie McQueen each intended to teach there for three years and then return home. In fact they remained sojourners between British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Ontario for much of their lives.

Drawing on family correspondence and supported by extensive engagement with current scholarship, Jean Barman tells the sisters’ stories and, in doing so, offers a new interpretation of early settlement across Canada. As did many other women of these years, Jessie and Annie McQueen remained bound by daughterhood’s obligations and sisterhood’s bonds even as they got involved in their new communities. Barman takes seriously women as sojourners and uses Jessie and Annie McQueen’s letters home to evoke the boundless energy and enthusiasm shown by the thousands of women who helped to form Canada’s frontiers.

Like other sojourners, the McQueen sisters did not come to their new home empty handed. They brought with them a distinctly Scottish Presbyterian way of life, consistent with ideas of the nation being promoted in the public realm by fellow Nova Scotians such as George Monro Grant. Confident in their assumptions, including the central role of religion in the formation of a grand national vision, women like these sisters were critical in uniting Canada from coast to coast. Broad in its critical approach and nuanced in its interpretations, Sojourning Sisters is a major contribution to the field of life writing and to the political, gender, and social history of Canada.

These sisters came in the late 1880s to the Nicola Valley area that neighbours Kamloops. This was the time immediately before the Chinook Jargon Kamloops Wawa newspaper and mass Native literacy, so the CJ that comes up in these pages amounts to solid clues about how folks of different ethnicities were using the language.

For instance, here Annie shows a familiarity with Jargon words, though with the distinct shades of meaning that those had when used as loans into local English:

Not only fellow newcomers, but the local Aboriginal people became part of Nan’s frontier. By this time, their numbers across the province had fallen to about 25,000, as a result principally of epidemics of disease. Several hundred lived in the Nicola Valley, making them more of an everyday presence than had been the case in Pictou County. Communication was facilitated by virtually everyone across British Columbia speaking the trade jargon of Chinook with its limited vocabular of 300-600 words. Annie bragged three months after arriving that ‘I am getting into the way of learning Chinook pretty well now and find that, like the rest of the people here, I use lots of words in ordinary conversation without noticing that I do.’ Annie was already becoming, in her own mind, a local. ‘For instance the word “cultis” meaning “worthless” etc. I catch myself using very often, it is so expressive.’

Invited by two newcomer men to ‘a cultis pot-latch at the rancheree above Quilchena,’ Anne responded: ‘Well, of course, I said “Yes’r I’ll go!” Nan shared her newfound expertise in a letter home. ‘Now as you are uninitiated I’ll explain, a cultis pot-latch is an Indian festival, where the Indians gather from all directions to give each other gifts, make speeches and make fools of themselves generally. The rancheree is the Reserve where the Indians dwell…all around the tent was the Indians & Klootchmen.’ The last was the Chinook word for Indian women, one that Annie used without feeling any need for translation. She was generally complimentary, referring to ‘the comely brown faces, the bright dark eyes,’ and describing how ‘one young Siwash began to sing so softly and sweetly,’ now using the Chinook word for Indian man. ‘I thought I never heard anything prettier.’

Annie had a pony that she used to get about. Her daring extended into riding, as she put it, ‘Klootchman style.’ She rode astride, even though a ‘side-saddle’ was available for her to use. ‘So I climbed on Kootchman [sic] style and started off full tear with nothing but the halter to hold on by, presently owing to the tightness of my dress I found myself on my back on the ground but I held on tight by the halter and the pony danced the can can all around me but he didn’t drag me any which shows he was a decent little beast.’ (pages 55-56)

If I could chat with Annie, I’d enjoy discussing how cultis in the phrase cultis pot-latch means to my mind ‘with no obligation’; the pot-latch here is the characteristic Anglophone use of the word for ‘give’ as a noun, a ‘giveaway’. And in Jargon, klootchman just means ‘woman’ or ‘female’, without reference to anyone’s race.

In the next selection, sister Jessie is just starting to pick up some Chinuk Wawa, and the expressions she cites sound more like actually witnessed speech. With that in mind, though, you may notice that the same racialized undercurrent flows through the Jargon as locals taught it to her — but it’s kind of charming how Jessie goes on “misusing” the words by White standards (as in ‘Siwash Klootchman’) although perfectly correctly by Chinuk Wawa’s norms:

Jessie also took the great step of moving from side-saddle to astride: ‘At the store the other night I got on an Indian cayuse Klootchman style! The Siwash who owned it, told us “halo buck” that is “no buck,” and took his pack off to let me try…’ Annie had taken pride in learning Chinook, and here too Jessie followed her example. Just a week in British Columbia: ‘Mrs. C.[hisholm] had a Klootchman washing … They laugh at me for saying “Klootchman woman.” Siwash is the masculine noun — Klootchman, the feminine.’ Two weeks later, Jessie retailed how she ‘had my first “tell” to-day, from Annie, the Klootch who washed here.’ The teacher boarding there before her, she was told, ‘didn’t like Siwash Klootchman, and always slammed the door shut between them.’ The washerwoman considered Jessie treated her decently, so she explained in detail to her mother, ‘She told Mrs. W. she had a “skookum tum-tum” for me, because I always spoke to her — said “hallo Annie” when I met her on the road one day &c &c. “Skookum” is good or something of the kind, and “tum-tum” is idea or thought, or opinion. “Hi-yu — lazy — tum-tum ‘stop’ ” (very lazy — thinks he’ll stop) was what she said about the horse one of the boys was riding today. Chinook does sound so comical.’ Jessie made it a point to add Chinook words to her letters, with explanations such as ‘tillicum‘ is ‘Chinook for friend.’ She described Annie’s weekend visit as ‘what the youngsters here call a “hi-yu” time’ and added perkily, ‘That’s Chinook of course.’ Another time she reassured Catherine how ‘I am all “skookum” again, as they say here.’ Later, Jessie wrote about having ordered a pair of shoes that did not fit, and so ‘I shall have to sell them to some other Klootchman.’ (pages 64-65)

Looks like ‘klootchman style’ was a local English idiom, huh?; unless the two sisters are the only ones who said it. Jessie’s CJ novice status shows with Annie the washerwoman’s words; the latter is probably quoted accurately but misinterpreted. Here one of the major guiding principles in reading old written Jargon becomes useful: “Don’t be fooled by the punctuation”, and its corollary “Don’t be fooled if there’s no punctuation” 🙂 If you remove the dashes and quotation marks, Annie was saying in perfect Kamloops-area Chinuk Wawa, Hiyu lazy tumtum stop, the horse ‘has a spirit that’s always lazy’. Like so many English-sourced words, stop was left out of Jargon dictionaries, but it was indeed a British Columbia CJ synonym for the copula mitlite ‘exist; have’.

Showing that the Jargon was indeed in everyday use is the following:

‘Today I have a Klootchman cleaning the stoves, and scrubbing the kitchen floor. She is a great old chatterbox, and I find my Chinook came in very handy.’ (page 77) 

This last quotation too supports the understanding that Nicola Valley Whites and Natives were accustomed to working side-by-side, using the Jargon to communicate:

Jessie noted at the end of her first August that Agnes Woodward was ‘about as well as usual, but has no help, hasn’t even been able to get a washer-woman this time, for all the Klootchies are away gathering huckleberries. All except Annie who used to do the washing regularly; Billy her man is “hiyu sick” — got on a spree some time ago, and Siwash Drs. don’t seem to be able to get him straightened out again, so she can’t leave him.’

You can see from these excerpts that Jean Barman writes a readable, storylike style of history book, and I bet you’re going to be happy once you get a copy of “Sojourning Sisters” and read it!