The Yaquina Indian troubles: Mrs. Kistler’s statement, & linguistic archaeology

(Edited 10/27/2019 to mention my followup to this article.)


Yaquina Indians (image credit: Legends of America)

A hoax to provoke a racist war?

On the one hand: You can tell Mrs. Kistler’s testimony of a conversation with the Native man called California Jack, about Elk City settlers’ raising a false alarm over a possible last Oregon Indian war, does reflect speech that took place in Chinuk Wawa.

A point in favor of this view is that even in English, she phrases the dialog in Chinook Jargon-style idioms such as “I am sick at heart”. (Compare dret nayka sik-təmtəm.) 

But on the other hand, the Jargon that’s quoted carries the distinct marks of bastən-wawa (English-language) influence, even though it’s Jack being quoted. I don’t know if that’s her doing, or that of her husband, who the preceding paragraphs imply wrote the exchange down to send to the newspaper’s editor. 

I’ll get into these issues after showing you this fascinating newspaper clipping from the Oregon frontier. 

Let me comment on the name of California Jack, for context: That phrase was the name of a popular card game of the era. So it was not necessarily an intentional connection of this man with that region. However, he’s referred to California-style as a “Digger” in another report of the same events. And just possibly it’s a reference to an Indian involved in the 1853 Smith River-area death of a prospector, that is, on the Oregon-California border. 

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Following is the conversation between Mrs. [George] Kistler and California Jack, in relation to the threatened outbreak on Yaquina Bay, just as it occurred, as nearly as it can be remembered by that lady. We give it, as the lady gives it to us, in the form of a dialogue, that our readers may see the full scope of the conversation:

Jack. — I suppose you would like to know why I did not come on to work this morning?

Mrs. Kistler — Yes ; I would like to know. As the weather is good, you ought to have been to work early.

Jack — I am very sick at heart.

Mrs. K — Why so? What is the matter?

Jack — I have not slept any all night. I have been talking to the Indians all night. They wanted to break into one

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house and steal lots of things, and get one one man and cockshet (hurt or beat) him.

Mrs. K. — Who is it that wants to do this?

Jack — My tillicum (people or friends).

Mrs. K. — Who is the man they want to kill?

Jack — I dare not tell, or they will kill me. 

Mrs. K — I would like to know who it is they wanted to kill last night.

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Jack — Do you think the white folks would protect me, if I made a revelation?

Mrs. K. — Certainly they would, if you told on the Indians, and helped the whites.

Jack — If I knew that to a certainty, I would tell.

Mrs. K. — Who is it ? Is it [E.N. Sawtell or] Sawtelle?

Jack — Yes; but don’t let the Indians know I have told, or they will kill me.

Mrs. K. — Why do they want to injure Sawtelle?

Jack — Because they are all mad at him. They wanted to go last night, but I would not give my consent. I told them that I did not want the whites to be mad with me. I wanted to work for my flour, meat, sugar and coffee; and I wanted to work all spring and summer, for Kistler, cutting wood for the 

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steamboat, and in the fall I would have lots of provisions and money. But they said what is the odds? It will not be long until all the whites will be mad at us, anyhow, and we might just as well commence now. I told them to wait until [General William S.??] Harney come [sic], and if he said go ahead, I would have no more to say. But they wanted to know why I would not give my consent, and repeated the question a number of times — “kata mika wake tickey nesika clatwa mamook cockshet yaka ?” (why don’t you want us to go and injure him?). I told them, as before, I wanted to work and earn my grub, and if they would go to work they could have plenty, too.. But they said no; one more night, and all would be mad. Nika wawa mika, close nanich; spose Harney wake choco, clonass siwash wake close midlite. Nika hias quash siwash cockshet Sawtelle polacly.

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Nika hias tickey Harney choco. Nika wake tickey midlite sullix copa Bostons. Mika close nanich — close nanich.

Mrs. Kistler is prepared to qualify to the occurrence of the above statement, whenever caIled upon by Mr. [Oregon Indian Commissioner Thomas Hart Benton “Ben”] Odenealor anybody else, to do so.

— from the Corvallis (OR) Benton Democrat of February 8, 1873, page 1, columns 4 and 5

Other news coverage at the time suggests that there was in fact no intention nor threat by Yaquina or Siletz Indians to commit violence against the settlers, and that in fact if anyone was up to no good, it was California Jack! In that case, you’d have here an argument in favor of one of the old folkloric views of Chinook Jargon, as a liars’ language.

The local press seems to have been politically split in a bitter way between Democrats and Republicans (remember the Civil War had just recently ended). It seems the papers of one side were actively spreading smears claiming Indian agent Odeneal and at least one other federal officer (Ben Simpson) did nothing to intervene on behalf of Whites in the “uprising”, instead riding from town to town drinking whiskey and smoking cigars. The above article and the newspaper it appears in fell squarely on that side of the tussle; recall that in that post-Civil War era, the Democrats were the anti-equality party.

The reference to telling an Indian to wait for “Harney” to intervene is potentially disturbing as well. If it referred to well-known General William S. Harney, who had indeed once served in the Pacific Northwest — albeit less than honorably in the ridiculous San Juan Islands “Pig War”, and with overall brutality toward Indians — it’s an empty, perhaps condescending, promise at best. Popular with Settlers, that Harney had until recent years acted in the ironic role of an Indian Peace Commissioner for the US Government. But he was now a retired old man! If California Jack actually voiced a desire for Harney to come, it seems to me he was (A) groveling before his White employers, (B) misled, (C) misleading them, or (D) all of the above.

Back to linguistic archaeology, as promised. As to the Chinuk Wawa both quoted and implied here:

Ways that it accurately reflects fluent Oregon speech (a Native person’s) include:

  • “I am very sick at heart“, as already mentioned.
  • “They wanted to break into one house” — this might sound comically self-limiting, like Lynda J. Barry as a child, or Danny in “Role Models”, mis-hearing KISS’s song as “I wanna rock ‘n’ roll all night / And part of every day!”  Not much of a threat of war against Settlers there. But in the Jargon, you actually do say ixt haws if you mean one specific house.
  • “and get one one man” — this too sounds odd in English, but it fits Jargon ixt-ixt ‘several; this and that’. If it’s an erroneous repetition of “one” by the typesetter, it’s again a match with ixt meaning ‘one certain’ person, evidently Mr. Sawtell(e).
  • “or they will kill me” — this matches Jargon’s pseudo-passive structure:  łaska mamuk-miməlust nayka, literally ‘they (will) make-dead me’ = ‘I will be killed (by someone)’.

Most of those clues come earlier in the news article. Toward the end, for veracity, Mrs. Kistler’s report shifts into the not-always-translated Chinuk Wawa that’s so typical of frontier Oregon journalism — and this is where things get really juicy. 

  • kata mika wake tickey ___ nesika clatwa…“, “why don’t you want us to go…”, is typical of the Jargon of folks who grew up speaking English because it diverges from the pidgin-creole’s grammatical norms. (Here come technical details.) The most fluent Jargon introduces a subordinate clause having a different subject from the main clause with the Irrealis complementizer pus. (End of technical details, start of clarifying example.) For example, we would expect the average speaker of Chinuk Wawa to say the present thought as kata mika wake tickey pus nesika clatwa…
  • The same grammar quirk is at play in Nika hias quash ___ siwash cockshet Sawtelle… (“I’m very afraid that the Indians will assault Sawtelle…”).
  • Nika wake tickey midlite sullix (“I don’t want to be angry”): this is the classic English-influenced habit in Jargon, misusing the “be”-verb (copula) of location/existence as a “be”-verb of description. Here, Chinuk Wawa grammar demands what we can call the “null” (Ø) copular (some linguists would say stative verb, YMMV), thus nika wake tickey sullix. 
  • Bostons (“Americans/Whites”): the use of the English plural suffix on nouns is far more characteristic of Jargon as spoken by first-language English speakers than of anyone else’s.  

In other words, the actual sentences of Chinook Jargon that are presented to us sound more like the speech of a White person than of a Native. 

Putting together all of the clues that I’ve just laid out, I see evidence of a Settler narrative having a surface that’s contrived to look like plausible evidence for action against local Indians, but in fact reveals disdain for them as well as, at best, less-than-ample understanding of them and, at worst, disregard for their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

What do you think of all this?