The first priest at the Dalles tells Bible stories in Chinuk Wawa

elijah ascends

(Image credit: Flickr)

Early missionary use of Chinuk Wawa leaves a lasting impression on White observers:

Toussaint Mesplié had initially served by establishing the Stella Maris mission among the Chinookans at the mouth of the Columbia River starting in 1847, then upon being ordained a priest, was sent upstream to their relatives in the Willamette Valley and The Dalles. He went on to train a major figure in Chinuk Wawa’s history, Father Croquet of Grand Ronde.

Keep reading after this clipping for my comments on its Chinook Jargon.


John Peter Mesplie, a brother of Father [Toussaint] Mesplie, was an early worker at the mission. He came direct from France to the Catholic mission at The Dalles. From that time he remained a resident of Wasco county, until his death, January 22, 1905. At the time of his decease he was a pioneer of pioneers, having made his home in the county for fifty-two years. Writing in The Dalles Times of March 2, 1881, “An Early Settler” says:

The Catholic mission was here in 1850 and I think it had ben [sic] here some time before; for soon after that date the priest in charge told a friend of ours that he was discouraged and should leave; as he had worked to instill sentiments of religion in the minds of the Indians, and yet, when he asked them to perform the slightest religious duty, they invariably asked, “What will you pay me?” And this reminds us of an incident: A party attended the church one Sunday morning, and were quite highly entertained by hearing the priest preach to the Indians in Chinook, telling them Bible stories — among others the ascension of Elijah — Copa Lah-alie [sic] illehee copa piah chick chick copa yaka — well, very highly dressed, trying to make them understand by these miracles the magnitude of the power of God. But he had to pay them to believe these things, so the good father left, and was replaced by Father Mesplie.

— page 102 of “An Illustrated History of Central Oregon: Embracing Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Crook, Lake, and Klamath Counties, State of Oregon” (Spokane, WA: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1905)

The quoted Jargon expression of 2 Kings 11:1, the spelling of which I correct to read Copa Sah-alie illehee copa piah chick chick copa yaka, looks to represent kʰapa sáx̣ali-ílihi kʰapa páya-c’híkc’hik kʰapa yáka. This doesn’t look easy to translate, out of context, but I’d give it in English as something like ‘to Heaven in a fiery wagon for himself’. You can compare that rendering with what’s in one Bible I found online:

11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

What do you think? How successful is that translation of European Christian ideas into Chinuk Wawa?