Snohomish Indian camp & Chinook Jargon

We’ve read of various Chinuk Wawa-speaking animals in previous articles on my website, but today we’ve got Lushootseed-understanding dogs among the Snohomish tribe.

Full credit for finding & presenting the following colorful newspaper story goes to the Snohomish, WA, history blog, “J.S. White: Our First Architect“. Excellent work, my friends!

[Editing to note on 11.15.2020 that my reader Jim Matilla chased down a full scan of today’s article & sent it to me. See it at the end of today’s post!]

To be clear: the 1891 writer slips in a number of dumb prejudices, but I think my readers will see them clearly for what they are…

snohomish indian camp

The Eye, October 24, 1891. Just beyond the railroad bridge on the south side of the river is a camp of Siwash* [Indian] aborigines that would attract the attention of all the people in town if we were not so accustomed to them. A reporter of The Eye in company with an interpreter who is known to the Siwash as “Spe-be-ow,” [Lushootseed ~ sbibiaw ‘little coyote’, not in the Bates-Hess-Hilbert dictionary, which has only bədaʔ ʔə tiʔiəʔ sbiaw, compare bədaʔ ʔə sbiaw] or son of the prophet, went across the river a few days since to talk with these children of nature who have no tastes above smoked salmon and strong water. On the way the visitors ran across the well-know Siwash character, Pillchuck [Red Water/River] Jack, and his wife or klootchman Julia, who deferentially saluted the reporter’s companion as Spe-be-ow. The woman, Julia, was the early companion of one of eminent citizens, but it may be said that a score of years ago the relationship here implied was quite regular.

The Siwashes have three or four tents made of matting which they manufacture from a kink [kind] of seaweed or rush that grows about the [Puget] sound. This material is spliced out with canvas and with bark and shakes. The matting is the Siwash’s carpet and bedding, and he uses it also for sails in his canoe and for rugs and lap-robes.

A few lazy dogs rose up to bark at the visitors, but were quieted by a word or two in the language they were accustomed to obey.

Upon the margin of the river an Indian woman was squatted cleaning fish. The tendency to industry seems to be confined to the female Siwash, whose sons never inherit the trait. The woman had a canoe load of salmon in front of her and was chopping their heads off and eviscerating them with a skill resulting from long practice. Mrs. Siwash did not look at all romantic; she was no Minnehaha, Laughing Water but had about as much attractiveness as red cow. Her fish were “humpies,” some of them [pink salmon], and the silver salmon. When the inner parts of a fish have been removed, the remainder is spread on a pole, as clothes are hung up to dry, and smoked by means of a wood fire kept burning whenever the Indians’ tired feeling will permit them to feed it. This is the out-doors smokery but inside every tent are the same sort of poles, loaded with fish, and the fire that cooks one salmon smokes another. The noble redman also contributes something to the general result by puffin[g] at his tobacco pipe.

Desiring to enter a tent the reporter’s companion pulled the flap aside and said, “Mesika [nesika] tiki nanage mika illahe,” which means, “We desire to enter your home.” A voice in the interior answered, “Klosh,” a word the Indian uses when he means “all right.” Getting into a Siwash tent is something like crawling under a bed, and the occupant is not permitted to stand erect. Inside the tent visited on this occasion were a Siwash and his female but no young. The man lay luxuriously on a piece of matting spread upon the ground, doing nothing, while the female moved about as through preparing a meal. In the inside of the tent a fire burned, the heat of which cooked salmon skewered lengthwise upon a stick that had one end stuck obliquely in the ground. Of course there were the inevitable dried and drying fish, which look as though they would be serviceable for soling and heeling boots. The reporter tore off a strip of the salmon and tested it. The stuff is not very savory, and even the Indian will get pretty hungry before he eats it without salt. He seasons his grub by wetting it in sea water when that is accessible. Some modern-looking bedding lay about the ground in the tent, but there were no chairs or table. The head of the household spoke a few words in his native wawa, and smiled quit[e] cordially at the visitors. His personal appearance would be improved by having a hose played on him for half an hour.

Two or three very good canoes are owned by the Indians camped here. The largest, a craft some twenty-five feet in length, is of Chinook manufacture, being provided with a sail. It is understood that the Siwash is not a good canoe builder, but depends on the more intelligent Chinook for his boats.

One character, just landing a canoe load of wood, gave his name as Fistfight Charley. He owns a ranch at Priest Point, but says he prefers fishing to farming, as it does not make him so tired. Fist-fight is a Christian, having been converted by Father Cheneth in British Columbia, and is now “all time Catholic.”

The Siwash has a religion, which is so much like the other religions that he can adopt any of them without violating his conscience. His untutored mind still sees God in clouds and hears him in the wind, and he is not particular what name the great spirit is called by. There is [a] Siwash deity known as Sbeow [Lushootseed sbiáw ‘coyote’], concerning who some legends are related, though very little is known about him. An old resident of Snohomish is said to have gathered a great number of these legends, the resemblance of which to the oriental myths is quite remarkable. Whether the Siwash ever knows anything or thinks of anything, or has the slightest desire to improve his condition, we are not informed. He is probably a case of arrested development, and, like the mule, has no ancestry to boast of and can not hope for a distinguished posterity.

*Siwash, noun derogatory An American Indian of the northern Pacific coast.
Origin: Chinook jargon, from Canadian French sauvage ‘wild’.

[Here’s the full article, scanned by Jim Mattila. hayu masi Jim!]

Pilchuck jack and julia siwash Snohomish Eye oct 24 1891