Elip Tilicum

First People

(Image credit: GoodReads)

ílep-tílixam: a culturally significant term that goes way back in Chinuk Wawa.

Literally ‘first people’, this term for those who inhabited the Pacific Northwest before modern humans is reasonably well documented early in the Jargon’s known history.

Here are some instances.

No systematic attempt has, it is believed, been made to convert the Klikatats to Christianity, although many individuals have come in contact with missionaries of some denomination. Several of those at Chequoss have had instruction from the Rev. Jason Lee and others, formerly at the Dalles. The old chief Tow-e-toks preserved a paper on which some one made a sort of calendar or record of the days of the week. He expressed great anxiety lest, as it was nearly worn out, he should be unable to distinguish the Sundays, and requested me to prepare him a new one. He added that he was in great fear of death, and constantly “talked to the Chief above.” As will readily be imagined, the remarkable features of this mountain scenery, and the neighborhood of the great snow peaks—Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams—give a color to the legends of the Klikatats. They, in common with the other Oregon tribes, seem to have had no distinct religious ideas previous to those introduced by the whites, nor any conception of a Supreme Being. Their mythology consists of vague and incoherent tales, in most of which Ta-la-pus, or the prairie wolf, figures as a supernatural power. Besides him there are other agents, among whom a race denominated the “Elip Tilicum,” from two jargon words signifying “first people,” or “people before,” figure prominently. Though trifling in themselves, yet, as specimens of what may be considered the unwritten literature of the Indians, they may not be uninteresting—the more especially as the belief in the existence of those giants seems to be of universal currency throughout Oregon. The following are among them: In descending the valley from Chequoss, there occurs beneath a field of lava a vaulted passage, some miles in length, through which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the roof of which has fallen in here and there. Concerning this they relate that a very long time ago, before there were any Indians, there lived in this country a man and wife of gigantic stature.

Report of George Gibbs to Captain Mc’Clellan, on the Indian tribes of the Territory of Washington (1855), page 406

Later, on page 411, the well-known Yakama chief Ow-hai (Owhi) is quoted as describing two columns of sandstone as having been “Ahn-cotté [long ago]…two women of the Elip Tilicum“.

Gibbs even includes this phrase elip tilikum in his renowned 1863 dictionary.

Elip Tillicum” are also mentioned by Lieut. J.K. Duncan, in 1854.

What do you think? Were the First People literally giants? Were they metaphorically “big”, important people? Both?