Polaklie Illahie


Chief Leschi (image source: MyNorthwest)

Polaklie Illahee (Land of Darkness): Identity and Genocidal Culture in Oregon.

That’s the Chinuk Wawa-infused title of Chapter 7 in the book “Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee: U.S. Empire and the Transformation of an Indigenous World, 1792-1859” by Gray H. Whaley (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

  • púlakʰli ‘night; darkness’
  • íliʔi ‘land; place’

By the rules of Chinook Jargon grammar, put these two words in sequence and you indeed have a noun phrase that means the ‘darkness land’.

It’s a phrase that hasn’t yet appeared in a Jargon dictionary, but let’s call it a “new discovery” because that’s fun — or in any event add it to our documentation of the language. Eva Greenslit Anderson’s dramatized but heavily footnoted 1950 book “Chief Seattle” attributes it to northern Lushootseed leader Patkanim and cites it in the spelling < Polakly Illehe > from Roberta Frye Watt’s 1931 volume “The Story of Seattle“, page 204.

‘Darkness land’ is an image that corresponds (this is my understanding from conversations and reading) with Native beliefs that, after death, a person’s spirit travels to a place where it’s always Opposite Day. When it’s daytime here, it’s the dead folks’ night, for example. Plenty of traditional myth stories explore the implications of this, and in the frontier era, tribal people carried an acute consciousness of proper behavior at the borders between life and death. The two were not to be mixed casually.

A specific instance: one belief that was current among the tribes in the era of treaty-making with the US government. In Whaley’s telling:

In 1854, Leschi, a Nisqually [Southern Lushootseed-speaking] man from the Puget Sound region, ventured hundreds of miles south to the Table Rock Reservation and surrounding environs in southern Oregon [where the Native languages were completely unrelated to his], telling of a vision. The vision was of a land of darkness, or Polaklie Illahee in Chinook Jargon, where Euro-Americans were going to take all the Indians, where the sun never shone, and where they would be damned to live out their days in a cold, dark, barren world. Polaklie Illahee was the spiritual antipode of nesika illahee [‘our land’]: a place of complete alienation where all Indians would be forced to reside, yet no Indian could live. The prophecy spoke to the profound fear of forcible removal and relocation that spread through Indian Country west of the Cascade Mountains. It arose directly from the early dispossession and reservation experiences of western Washington, western Oregon, and perhaps northern California. 

Indeed, early Seattle resident Dr. William Tolmie recalled that Leschi “shared at this time in the dread generally entertained by the Puget Sound Indians that the buying of their lands was a prelude to shipping them off in steamers to an imaginary dark and sunless country.” Tolmie added that “the Indian agents of that day will remember how widespread and universal that apprehension was — how an Indian, seemingly convinced of its absurdity, would [nevertheless] be back in a few days, as much alarmed as ever.” At the Table Rock reserve in southern Oregon, one fifth of the people had died in the first winter, and Native peoples throughout the Oregon Country were understandably distraught by the prospects of removal and confinement. Likely, the Nisqually vision was well received by many among the Table Rock residents.

— page 214

Specific details about the above paragraphs can be quibbled over:

  • One source referred to by Whaley, the 1858 report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (pages 226-227), doesn’t obviously relate to a Native fear of a land of darkness.
  • Dr. Tolmie never lived in Seattle, but was farther “up” Puget Sound at Nisqually for some decades.
  • I haven’t found corroborating evidence yet that it was the definitely influential Leschi who traveled so far south as Table Rock, but Anderson’s book has it (p. 148) that Patkanim, a northern Lushootseed speaker, traveled beyond there to northern California before the treaty period, in 1850.
  • While Anderson seems to attribute the Polaklie Illahee concept to Patkanim, she cites Watt as terming it Leschi’s idea.
  • Whaley doesn’t mention other factors behind southwest Oregon Indians’ feeling of alarm that are reported by one of his sources, the 1854 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: conflict with local settlers had disrupted their traditional seasonal round of resource gathering for the coming winter, and those settlers had taken over many of the Native people’s best root grounds, etc.

Regardless of these details (which are important to know), it still remains a fact that we have uncovered a previously little-acknowledged cultural element that played a big role in the course of Pacific Northwest Indian treaty-making: the Chinuk Wawa expression Polaklie Illahee.

And we have recovered something that often went unrecorded in early documentation of Chinuk Wawa: its role in expressing Native culture and beliefs.

This Independence Day, as I wrote this, I felt that coming to a better understanding of this past feels like a patriotic act that can help us chart our course forward.

What do you think?