Aboriginal rights, clearly expressed in a pidgin, 151 and 1/2 years ago


Loud and clear.

[Edited to credit Prof. Keith Thor Carlson of the University of Saskatchewan for originally providing me with a copy of the Chinuk Wawa letter.]

Exhibit “I” to the Statement of Evidence of Marilyn Gabriel Chief of Kwantlen First Nation” in British Columbia, Canada, isn’t the most enticing title my readers ever put eyes on.

Take the time to delve into this dossier on the formation of the Kwantlen Indian Reserves near Langley, BC, though, and you’ll learn that there’s rich cultural and political material here — coming to us via Chinook Jargon.

(The citations in italics and parentheses below are copied exactly from the document.)

Following the retirement of Sir James Douglas as governor, Aboriginal people were nervous about Settler-encouraged rumours that there would no longer be any government protections of Indians and their lands.

Page 35 tells about one response to this situation: Governor Seymour’s meeting, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s birthday, to introduce himself to Native people and (this is relevant) Catholic missionary priests, on May 24, 1864 in New Westminster:

About three thousand five hundred attended the Summons…They landed at the stie selected for a Public Park, where luncheon was provided at the expense of the Government. I joined them in the afternoon when the enclosed addresses were exchanged between the Chiefs and myself.”

(Seymour, Governor to Cardwell, 31 August 1864. Great Britain. Public Record Office. British Columbia Despatches to London 1864, 10594, CO 60/19, pp. 95-98. London. Tab I-16a.)

The study goes on to cite (pages 35-37) the British Columbian newspaper’s coverage:

The Indian Reception took place on the site of the old marine encampment. His Excellency Governor Seymour and staff arrived on the ground shortly after 12, when the chiefs present, 57 in number, formed a semi-circle in front; three of their number, as representatives of the whole, were presented separately and delivered verbal addresses which were translated into the Chinook by interpreters and into English by the Rev. Pierre [Léon] Fouquet. This over, His Excellency made a verbal reply in English, which was translated into Chinook by Mr. Fouquet, and by the three native interpreters rendered in the language of the tribes they represented; and this if not the most interesting, was certainly not the least novel and amusing part of the performance. As soon as the speechifying was concluded the 57 chiefs received presents from His Excellency, assisted by Capt. Holmes…” (British Columbian, The Celebration, 25 May 1864. British Columbian, 25 May 1864. New Westminster 3. Tab I-16b.)

Chinuk Wawa again played a crucial function just three years later, when in response to a provincial Legislative Council resolution asking for a petition from the Aboriginal people, a written one was delivered (page 40). The unusual and historically valuable thing about this document is that it was written not only in English but also in the Jargon.  It’s quite rare to find written records of “Chinook” as used by Natives in their dealings with Settler governments. Equally unusual is to find an entire text in Jargon from such an early time in BC contact history. And this one may be the earliest Native-written item in Chinuk Wawa!

(Petition of Lower Fraser, Lytton, Douglas and Euclatow Chiefs to Seymour, Governor at New Westminster, written in both English and Chinook, February 1867. Great Britain. Public Record Office. British Columbia. Despatches to London 1867, 3710, CO 60/27. London: 242-242a. Tab I-18c. Note that the signatures on this petition were witnessed and likely transcribed by L. Fouquet.)

A brief quote from the English text is given (pages 40-41):

The white men tell many things about taking our lands our hearts became very sick. We wish to say to Governor Seymour, please protect our lands, many are our children and some go to school one of them has written this…

It just so happens that I’ve previously encountered the Chinuk Wawa version of this petition, so we can compare the foregoing excerpt with that. Since it’s not reproduced in the Kwantlen FN document, I’ll show you here my own transcription and translation of it. (This is from several years ago, working from a slightly muddy image which seems to have been misplaced in my transition to a new computer!)

“Siwash Tahyi wawa merci kopa Governor Seymour spoos yaka wake tiker
sáwásh-táyí wáwa mási kʰapa Governor Seymour spus yáka wík tq’ix̣
Indian-chief say thanks to Governor Seymour if he not want
‘The Indian chiefs thank Governor Seymour if he is against’

poos tkop man makook lum kopa siwash. halo [illegible] man, halo
pus tk’úp-mán mákuk lám kʰapa sáwásh. hílu … mán, hílu
for white-man sell alcohol to Indian. No … man, no
‘the Whites selling alcohol to Indians. There are no (police?)men (and) no’

skokoom house kopa nsika elehe nsika komtax (s)poos lum mamook
skúkum-háws kʰapa nsáyka ílhi[.] nsáyka kə́mtəks spus lám mámuk-
strong-building on our land. We know if alcohol make
‘jails on our lands. We know whether alcohol causes’

tchako halo siwash kopa kanewe kah mukmuk lum tlaska”
cháku-hílu sáwásh kʰapa kʰánawi-qʰá(x̣) mə́kmək lám łáska[.]
become-nothing Indian at every-where drink alcohol they.
‘the destruction of Indians everywhere that they drink it.’

“Tkop man wawa ayu kopa eschum (?) nsika elehe tomtom tchako ayo
tk’úp-mán wáwa áyú kʰapa ískum nsáyka ílihi[.] tə́mtəm cháku ayu-
White-man say much about taking our land. Heart become much-
‘The Whites talk a lot about taking our lands. (Our) hearts become very’

sick: nsika tchako wawa kopa Governor Seymour: tlosh mika tlosh
sík: nsáyka cháku wáwa kʰapa Governor Seymour: łúsh máyka łúsh-
hurt: We come say to Governor Seymour: good you well-
‘sad: We come to tell Governor Seymour: Please’ 

nanitch nsika elehe ayo tlaska nsika tanas tanas tlaska tlatwa kopa school
nánich nsáyka ílihi[.] áyú łáska nsáyka tənəs-tənás łáska łátwa kʰapa skúl[.]
watch our land. Many they our little-child they go to school.
‘protect our lands. We have many young children who go to school.’

icht (?) yaka mamook okook tsum.”
íxt yaka mámuk úkuk ts’ə́m.
One he make this writing.
‘One of them wrote this.’

“Nsika wake tekehr mash tchikomen poos lolo laplanche kanewe (?)
nsáyka wík tq’íx̣ másh chíkʰəmin pus lúlu laplásh kʰánawi
We not want spend money for bring lumber all
‘We do not wish to spend money to (be able to) bring lumber (and) all sorts of’

iktas kopa nsika kanim kopa tlaska tsok nsika ankate oldman”
íkta-s kʰapa nsáyka kəním kʰapa łáska tsə́qw nsáyka ánqati úl-mán[.]
thing-s in our canoe on their water our previous old-man[.]
‘necessities in our canoes over the waters of our ancestors.’

“Nsika tekehr (mamook) kahr nsika papa mamook fish.”
nsáyka tq’íx̣ (mámuk) qʰáx̣ nsáyka papá mámuk-písh.
We want (work) where our father make-fish.
‘We want to (work) where our fathers fished.’

Maybe you notice the unusual spellings, influenced by French orthography. For instance, the letter < r > is used here to suggest the “x” or “x̣” sounds of Jargon, and “proper” French spellings are used for some Chinuk Wawa words that obviously came from French, like < laplanche>. Similarly, “proper” English spellings are used for Anglo-derived words such as < fish >, < school >, and < oldman >.

This Chinuk Wawa text is quite fluent, which should be no surprise to us, coming several years into the BC gold rushes up the Fraser River and through Kwantlen territory. One or two notable features of it:

  • The use of the authentic older form of the verb ‘want’, / t’qíx̣ / (as opposed to the later, essentially universal, / tíki /).
  • A functional distinction between a hypothetical/irrealis spoos ‘if; whether’ and a purposive poos ‘in order to; for’. Both of these trace back to Chinookan pus, ultimately, but in some Jargon dialects the later influence of English “suppose” led to innovations like this one. [Edited in August of 2021 to report that I found a higher-resolution image of the document, and found that there is no “spoos” present.]

What do you think?