Nimíipuu Chief Joseph’s interview with cartoonist Homer Davenport, 1903


Nez Perce chief Joseph cartooned from life by H. Davenport, 1903 (image credit: The Davenport Project)

A wonderful article at The Davenport Project blog is fun reading, with the added value of bringing us rare quoted Chinuk Wawa from the Palouse region of southeast Washington and north Idaho. 

Here we have a pair of episodes bookending famous cartoonist Homer C. Davenport‘s (1867-1912) recollections of Palouse Native people.

It was transcribed from a handwritten document by someone unfamiliar with some local details, so I’m adding some clarifications.

Excerpts (but really, go read the whole piece) —

[A Native man named Piatote, speaking to Davenport’s uncle, in Colfax, WA, in 1879]

…still smiling, shifted in his saddle and said, “Now witka now witka, hias skookum tennas cultan,” meaning “I understand, I understand, but I wanted to show you the fine little colts.”

Now witka now witka, hias skookum tennas cuitan =
nawítka nawítka, hayas-skúkum tənəs-kʰíyutən =
true true, very-fine little-horse =
‘Yes, yes, (they’re) excellent ponies.’

[Davenport with Chief Joseph, in New York City, in 1903]:

I asked him in jargon, “Do you know John Davenport, at Colfax?”

The old chief quickly lifted his head, his eyes lit up with a bright twinkle. “Now witka, hias skookum John Davenport. Skookum, skookum, skookum, hi youtl [hiyu] potlatch quitan, hi youtl potlatch quitan, hi youtl potlatch chickamen, sluh [siah, kopa] Colfax.” [See translation below.]

In my joy I happened to think of old Platote [Piatote], and I asked if he knew Platote.

Instantly the old chief, who had again become a boy, stood up. “Platote,” he exclaimed over and over, in loud, deep tones. Then he asked if I knew Platote, and I told him yes. He shook with laughter. The other Indians in the room all laughed and said Platote. Finally from a roll of red blankets that lay on the floor in the corner of the room came a grunt and the muffled words, “Charley Platote, hi youtl quitan.” [“lots of horses”]

…The buckskin smell and the odor of a wilder country had made me homesick and blue, and as I started to leave the room, as I passed the dignified old Chief to say goodbye he said that I had made him feel very bad, but he was here where the houses are “slah, slah [siah],” [“far”] pointing to the sky, and at the railroads were “slah,” and that the mention of old Platote had made him homesick. “Hi youtl homesick.” [“Very much homesick.”]

Now witka, hias skookum John Davenport. Skookum, skookum, skookum, =
nawítka, hayas-skúkum John Davenport. skúkum, skúkum, skúkum, =
true, very-fine John Davenport. fine, fine, fine =
‘Yes, John Davenport is (an) excellent (man). Good, good, good,’

hi youtl [hiyu] potlatch quitan, hi youtl potlatch quitan, hi youtl =
hayu-pátlach kʰíyutən, hayu-pátlach kʰíyutən, hayu-=
much-give horse, much-give horse, much-=
‘(he) provided lots of horses, provided lots of horses,’

potlatch chickamen, sluh [siah, kopa] Colfax. =
pátlach chíkʰəmin, sayá Ø Colfax. =
give money, far Preposition Colfax =
‘gave good money, back in Colfax.’

The introduction to the article inaccurately calls Davenport “apparently semi-fluent” in Chinuk Wawa. It looks to me like he had a sharp memory for it from his childhood, and, like the Indian men he quotes, a pretty decent command of it.