Native’s opinion of circus snake charmer

forepaugh circus snake charmer

(Image credit: Etsy)

In which I have questions about a supposed joking Indian.

Snipes and Kinersly drug store 1886.png

(Image credit:

Read on, and read afterward.

snake charmer

Yesterday, as the bill posters of the Forepaugh circus were pasting up their big posters on the boards in the vacant lot west of Snipes & Kinersly’s drug store an Indian and his squaw stood gazing at the-pictures with great interest. Their attention soon became riveted on the picture of the snake charmer, who is depicted wrapped all around with snakes on her body, arms and head. The squaw did not seem to understand what it all meant, and her spouse explained it in the following words: “Cultus klootchman. Alki yaka memaloose pe yaka. Klatawa kekwily copa snake illehe kah hy pire.

— from The Dalles (OR) Daily Chronicle of August 26, 1891, page 3, column 3

Translating for my modern readers, because yet again a (late-) frontier Pacific Northwest newspaper has refrained from insulting its readers’ intelligence and left Chinuk Wawa untranslated:

Cultus klootchman. Alki yaka memaloose pe yaka. Klatawa kekwily copa snake
kʰə́ltəs ɬúchmən. áɬqi yáka mímlus pi yáka ɬátwa kíkwəli kʰapa < snake >
worthless woman. later she die and she go down to snake
‘(That’s a) no-good woman. She’s going to die and she’ll go down to the snake’

illehe kah hy pire.
ílihi qʰá háyú páya.
place where much fire.
‘place where it’s all fiery.’

Do you suppose this is a genuine quotation? I can’t disprove it. But I have more questions.

Would a Native person have needed to speak Chinuk Wawa to his spouse? My answer might be — Yes, some would. Look at Grand Ronde at that time period; most kids born there at the time were native Jargon speakers. But the majority of the region’s Indians would still in 1891 be talking other tribal languages amongst themselves.

So, was this actually said in Jargon? Hmm, maybe not. I lean towards thinking that if it was said in Chinook, there was a reason for that. Such as making a joke that the White bystander would overhear and understand.

And if it wasn’t said in Jargon? It could’ve been said in English, as plenty of Indians were talking it by 1891.

Otherwise it was in Indian, like Sahaptin or Paiute or Chinookan, and the reporter (or his source) didn’t actually understand a word. In which case the White folks made up this joke, and put it in Jargon to give a veneer of authenticity to the otherwise worn-out “Indians be like…” trope.