“Talking” about Aboriginal legal systems v. colonizer laws

american indians and the law

(Image credit: Kirkus Reviews)

On “mamook law“: this involves some linguistic archaeology work.

First off, the sad fact is that almost all the Chinook Jargon that was used during testimony and witness examination in US and Canadian courts in times gone by went unrecorded. Unlike English-language speech, Jargon was rarely written down in that setting.

To my surprise, Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation, in its compendium of so many old Jargon authorities, tells next to nothing about “law“. He cites only his 1970s fieldwork informants for this Wawa word. The nice element being that almost all of those folks were British Columbians — so we can take this as a BC Jargon word, i.e. a later-frontier one.

The downside is that here we experience the drawback to SVJ’s silent decision not to index three of the most important Jargon lexica:

  • Modeste Demers(+Blanchet +St. Onge) 1871
  • George Shaw 1909
  • Walter Shelley Phillips 1913

Those documentors in many cases richly testify to Jargon usages that we would otherwise know fairly little about.

  • Demers, page 32, shows la or lo ‘command, law, compromise’ (!), as an Addendum. I’ve not found a further occurrence of the word in that book, though, and for instance ‘commandments’ is rendered as wawa, literally ‘words, speech’.
  • Shaw, page 14, gives law and a few phrasal derivations of it. Page 29, Washington potlatch law kopa nesika. Page 45, Saghalie Tyee law ‘commandments’. Page 52, tyee man klaska mamook law ‘legislature’ shows us the phrase we’re looking for.
  • Phillips, page 85, contains a Jargon sentence whose English translation referencies the “law chief” (policeman), but the Jargon has just the single word tyee ‘chief’…

It’s noteworthy that la/lo is an afterthought in Demers 1871 [ca. 1838], and that only as late as Shaw 1909 do we first verify the expression mamook law. This chronological trend contrasts with the early and sustained use of wawa to mean ‘command, order’ (verb and noun).

From this I conclude that wawa is the synonym that’s more likely to reflect an Aboriginal legal understanding, one in which a leader’s words are the primary shaper of people’s freewill actions.

The corollary then is that law/la/lo entered later, and, in line with the strong trend among English loans into Chinuk Wawa, did not necessarily crowd out the original expression, but instead denoted a specification within the existing term’s semantic range. Thus, law meant European-style written regulations, and was used in reference to police, courts, and legislatures. Note here a lexical dichotomy which implies that Aboriginal legal systems would have been imperceptible to non-Aboriginal speakers of Jargon, being the default case and lacking any label more specific than the ubiquitous and polysemous wawa.

Note finally the intermediate case, the commandments of the Christian God. These seem as if they started out being explained early to Native people as God’s wawa. (See Demers rather early on, perpetuated in Le Jeune’s work decades later, which, we keep finding, bears traces of transmission from Fort Vancouver to Puget Sound to the Lower Mainland to the Southern Interior.) This accords with missionaries’ known urgent priority of Christianizing PNW people before even considering teaching them literacy and exposing them to any translated version of the written Bible. It was later, after writing was a familiar concept for aboriginal people, that some began calling the Commandments law (see Shaw).

So as always, as we do some digging into a Jargon expression, we unearth strata of the language that retell our region’s historical development. In this instance, we find Aboriginal concepts of law underlying and shaping the development of acculturated European ones.

What do you think?