Joel Palmer’s Indian name! And more juicy bits…


(image credit: Oregon Encyclopedia)

This guy is really good! Remembering the early reservation period in Umatilla, Oregon…

My website’s mission involves exposing you to firsthand voices from our region’s history — letting you develop a perspective for yourself that you’d never get from relying on the condensed knowledge of “authorities”. I’m turning you into my fellow linguistic archaeologists 🙂

And I find the “Recollections of an Indian Agent”, a four-part memoir by “The Sage of Silverton”, T.[imothy] W.[oodbridge] Davenport (1826-1911), a refreshing example. This man had an eye for detail, and it may have had a lot to do with his willingness to take people as they are. Sure enough, his biography at the preceding link says he was a socially active “free thinker”.

I suggest this bodes well for any of us who are seeking historical insights, not to mention the rare examples of evenhanded treatment, ignoring neither Whites’ corrupt hypocrisy nor Natives’ fundamental human decency. TWD was agent for just two years (1862-1864), so the fact that he wrote four articles’ worth of material based on the experience further primes my expectations that he got into some details.

A very short “Extract from…” Davenport’s memoir was published first. I’ll pass ahead to the real McCoy, focusing as always on how language and cultural contact, and their impact our Pacific Northwest region’s history, are reflected.

Part I indicates that some Umatilla Reservation staff, white and “half-breed”, could speak the Walla Walla Sahaptin language and act as interpreters to and from English. TWD displays a sustained understanding that the Native people’s recent and earth-shattering transition from aboriginal lifeways to settled existence explain any difficulties or delays in their becoming like Whites. He also says the American treaty negotiators were sensible people who realized the Indians couldn’t possibly subsist on their new reservation lands, and would require a lot of governmental assistance to stay alive.

He speaks of the Indians not being hired to build up the reservation — “hanging around the towns where they bartered their ‘ictas‘ [belongings] for the white man’s goods” while Whites were engaged to put up a flour mill and so forth (page 15).

An observant approach to the languages around him is shown in TWD’s paragraph on what “became the most interesting part of my duty”, redoing his subordinate’s census-taking, this time using the “phonetic alphabet” he head learned in 1848 as a way to modernize Umatilla’s records of Native people’s names so that Indians could recognize them when read aloud (page 19)! TWD assured his shamed employee that the American treaty negotiators, too, had done a poor job of recording Indian names; he expounds on the need for a scientific phonetic alphabet, which should be widely taught (pages 19-20).

An undercover sting operation is described: “A soldier was dressed and painted like an Indian, and he, with a veritable Siwash [Indian], went and bought and drank liquor…” (page 24).

The chief Howlish Wampo, a gifted orator, “was one of the few Indians that could not speak Chinook” as TWD could, and TWD knew no more than a few words of Sahaptin, so the two communicated mostly by gestures but also with some words of the Jargon (pages 27-29). Native defendants did not routinely understand English, and were not always provided interpreters, with tragic results (page 32).

Part II The Umatillas, one by one, would visit TWD’s home to sit silently for an hour observing his family life and, as it turned out, evaluating his character. “Sometimes I or my wife would ask if we could do anything for them, and the invariable answer was, the Walla Walla word wato, or the Chinook wake (no.) Our little daughter, then five years old, having learned a few words of Chinook, would essay a conversation, which always produced a relaxation of countenance indicative of sympathy.” (Page 102.)

About the old chief Stickas: “Dr. [i.e. Presbyterian missionary Marcus] Whitman must have taught him through an interpreter, as Stickas could not speak English and but a few words of Chinook, which was understood by all the coast tribes and quite commonly spoken by the early white immigrants to the Northwest Coast.” (Page 112.) [TWD uses “Northwest Coast” and “West Coast” synonymously with our modern “Pacific Northwest”.]

“…some half-dozen old and cast-off women, called by the Indians, low-ee-ii [Chinuk Wawa lamiyáy, ‘old women’], had pitched their conical tents…” (page 118). “…it is well enough to remark concerning the habit of those Indians and other tribes, of “marshing” (ejecting) [Chinuk Wawa mash] their wives when, from age or other cause, they cease to be profitable or attractive (page 119).

Pierre, “the salaried chief of the Walla Wallas”, spoke Canadian French (page 127).

Part III “General Joel Palmer was the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory…the Indians whom he conducted to their reservations gave him the name of ‘Skookum-tum-tum‘, the Chinook word for ‘strong heart’ ” (pages 236-237).

“Indian Languages” (pages 244ff): “Although I had spent much time in and out of school, striving to become proficient in the use of my mother tongue, and had delved somewhat into the written language of the Latins, I never really waked up to the great sphere which language occupies in human life, until I got to the West Coast and frequently found myself among human beings with whom I could hold no converse except by inarticulate grunts or visible signs.” (Page 245)

“Shortly after arriving in the Willamette Valley” as an emigrant of 1851, “[o]ne Indian uttered along with his pantomime, the words, ‘wake siah, clatawa sitcum sun,’ the Chinook, as I afterwards learned, for ‘not far, half day’s travel [wik-sayá, ɬátwa sítkum sán ‘not far, go half day’]. [paragraph break] This circumstance convinced me of the necessity of acquiring a use of the Chinook language, so that I could have the benefit of the knowledge gained by the natives to the soil. It was not, however, a difficult task to become acquainted with enough of it to meet practical demands, and there were numerous occasions when it was especially serviceable. I was lost once in the Cascade Mountains and so befuddled among its mists and clouds, which completely shut out the sun, that I could not determine which end of the Barlow road to take when I came to it. An Indian happened along soon after, and I, being a ‘Chinooker’ as the early Oregonians termed those who had learned to speak the Indian, was soon traveling towards the valley. And to show what acute observers those untutored chidren are,I must narrate the colloquy just as it occurred. Looking at me rather fixedly he saw at once, I suppose by the staring expression of my eyes, that I had been suffering from extreme mental anxiety, and ejaculated, ‘Micah hias quash‘ (You are very fearful); ‘Micah wake kumtux kah micah illahee (you know not which way is home.) Of course I could not hide from those reading eyes my true condition and ‘owned the corn’ by saying ‘nowitka’ (yes.) He gave me a smile that I was at a loss to interpret, and to this day I do not know whether it was expressive of sympathy with my suffering condition or of languid contempt for a white man, that with his superior attainments should be so barren of brain as to become a crazy wanderer in the woods where every tree and stone should furnish him a clue to his destination. Looking around he asked, ‘Cuppit icht micah?‘ (are you alone), to which I answered ‘Nowitka‘ (yes.) Pointing to the way he had come he told me that in about one hour’s walk I would find a covered wagon and white family camped, with plenty of venison; inspiring news to me as I had not tasted food in twenty-four hours. Clapping his moccasined heels against his pony’s sides he started off, saying in English, ‘Good-bye, Boston man,’ and added in Indian, ‘Close nanitch oo-ee-hut‘ (Look sharp for the road.)” (pages 245-247)

A rare sensible discussion of Chinuk Wawa’s origin and growth follows. “The early Oregon immigrants spoke it, and some of them quite fluently. Some of its terms were so expressive and euphonious that they have been adopted as good enough to be considered English, though not included as yet in our dictionaries.” (page 247)

On page 248, TWD depicts the highly necessary but predictably difficult dynamic of translation between Chinuk Wawa and English. He repeats the old chestnut  — also known to us in a variant involving British missionaries in BC — about high officials having “thoughtlessly prepared an elaborate speech with which to electrify their primitive auditors”. In this case it’s Governor Saloman of Washington Territory, addressing assembled Native conferees and both Washington and Oregon settlers, “all of them speakers of Chinook”. Drawing himself up to his full official dignity, he began with the poetic term of address, “Children of the forest”. The governor’s interpreter gave this out as “Tenas tillicums copa stick” [read on…]. “The anti-climax was so stunning to the whites that they broke into uproarious laughter that shook the woods…The Indians were as much nonplussed as the Governor, for they could not see the propriety of addressing them as small people in the woods, and for that reason they regarded the laugh as being at their expense.” [DDR note — in the Jargon, there is no possessive structure using a preposition like the English “children of the forest”.]

TWD goes on to make, in much finer words, exactly the point I’ve hammered on in my writing through the years, that “the Chinook is not a flux for poetical expression..” He also goes to some pains to specify that when it comes to “pantomime”, i.e. gestures, hand signs, and so forth, which along with other authorities he considers an important adjunct of Chinuk Wawa, there are those who are not very good at it, and certain people whom he names as being briliant. The chief, Howlish Wampo, is the subject of a specific and detailed example. (page 249)

Differences between White and Indian people’s pronunciation of Native words and names are pointed out. Howlish Wampo “said the whites were addicted to harsh pronunciation and gave many instances.” Written, i.e. White, representations of Chinook Jargon are therefore “a poor representation of the Indian’s speech”, even though created “in early times when the Indians and whites were in daily communication by the use of it”. (page 249 and following)

One example encapsulates this problem for TWD: “The Chinook word for water is given as ‘chuck,’ but the pure word is ‘tsuck,’ which is less harsh to any sensitive ear. (page 252)

“The Indians of the West Coast were given to amulets and charms and generally kept them secreted. They believed, too, in a multiplicity of spirits distributed among the objects of nature; such as the spirit of the mountain, the stream and smaller things. That is the mountain had a ‘ta-man-a-was,’ that was the name given by many. They also believed in a great spirit, but whether that idea was obtained from the missionaries, I cannot tell. When I arrived in Oregon in 1851, the Indians everywhere I met them talked about the Sohli Tyee or God, though they still spoke of the spirit of things.” (page 254)

Witnessing Native prayer atop a Marion County hill: “…why should [the Kalapuya Indians] ascend the mountain top to pray? Why not pray on low ground? I put this latter question to the unostentatious Indian worshippers, and…their answer proved that they are at one with the whole human race, viz., ‘Soh-li Tyee mit-lite wake siah copa sohli illahee,’ which translated into our language means that God is near to the mountain top, or God is near in the mountains.” (page 256)

Part IV is equally excellent writing, but it mainly consists of family reminiscences and musings on Whites’ attitudes generally towards Native people — no Chinuk Wawa is quoted, but I recommend reading it along with the preceding three installments.

I’m grateful to discover TW Davenport’s memoir and its sane views on Northwest cultural contact. What do you think?