The Human Side of the Indian

Indians are people too! This had to be pointed out in 1906!

I can’t think of very many better people to task with that job than Alexander Francis Chamberlain (1865-1914), one of the great Franz Boas’s early students.

As a founder of Anthropology, Boas made a point of speaking out against that time’s prevalent assumptions of White racial superiority, and when he taught, he likewise passed along the understanding that there’s no scientific justification for racism.

His protégé and successor Chamberlain (who took over the reins when Boas left Clark U.) published a general-audience article to spread the message: “The Human Side of the Indian” (Popular Science of June 1906, pages 503-514). It’s really a joy to read.

Chamberlain’s openminded attitude comes forth in the opening sentence:

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The oneness of the American Indians with all races of men (including us whites) is readily admitted by those who have seen them in their human activities and not merely in their forced relations with so-called ‘higher civilization.’

— page 503

Chamberlain dealt with conservative attitudes among non-Whites, too:

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One of the chief men of the Upper Kootenays [in British Columbia], who was unfriendly to the writer’s [Chamberlain’s] objects, resurrected a dead-letter law of the tribe by which the women were forbidden to talk English with the white men. When the writer overcame this difficulty by using the Chinook jargon, the same man used his influence to have the women forbidden to talk anything but Kootenay, but by that time he had learned enough Kootenay to make this prohibition of not much avail.

— page 506

But his main way of giving insight into the Kootenay mind was to use his own strength, an ear for language. The following remarks parallel what we’ve elsewhere heard about Chinuk Wawa speakers at Grand Ronde and elsewhere:

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The mastery of the difficulty and tl sounds, so characteristic of the Kootenay language, is also much appreciated by the Indians…[Chamberlain’s] attention to these points caused the Indian to dub him ‘The man who talks straight.’

— pages 507-508

Combining the subjects of Indians’ senses of humor and appreciation of language, Chamberlain shows us why (as he wrote in a separate article) a pidgin Kootenay came into existence:

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To hear a white man blundering along in his efforts to speak Kootenay correctly is one of the best quarter-hours the Indians ever enjoy. Even the wives and children of white men who have married squaws extract considerable amusement out of the linguistic mistakes of their husbands and fathers. Any one who believes that the Indian never laughs will be heartily undeceived after a session of this sort. The inability of the whites to master the numerous gutturals with which the Kootenay language is provided is a never-ending source of laughter. The Indians went off into roars of merriment over such mistakes as saying inisin (horsefly) for inisimin (rainbow); k’upi (owl) for k’upik (woodpecker); hahas (skunk) for haha (crow), etc. When some one said for kankuptse (bread baked in a pan), the perfectly unmeaning tankuptse, it reminded the Indians of a real word, t’ankuts (grouse), and they indulged in a fit of laughter. When the writer mispronounced the word gustet (trout), on one occasion, an Indian went off into the woods near by and returned with a diminutive ‘tamarack,’ the name of which is in Kootenay kustit, pronouncing that word correctly, as he handed him the shrub.

— page 508

Chamberlain sometimes brings us details of Chinuk Wawa, I’ve always noticed, that nobody else does. Here is a lovely little cultural aspect of the Jargon:

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The Indians have their ‘chatter’ and ‘nonsense’ as well as the whites. Amelu was very fond of chanting and talking to himself in somewhat waggish fashion. This he called, in the Chinook jargon, ‘cultus wawa‘ (nonsense).

— page 509

Here’s more about wordplay in Kootenay, which is a reflection of an ancient Aboriginal tradition of expertly manipulating language in storytelling. (Practically every myth you find published in the Native languages has at least one character talking oddly, or some kind of pun, as I discuss in my latest paper.) The modern twist here is that Chamberlain finds the people bringing it into their current slang and pidgin (“jargon”) Kootenay as well, and I wonder if the ‘dragonfly’ anecdote involves playing with Chinook Jargon’s word for ‘Indian’ that you’ll see in the next clipping:

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An interesting procedure, indulged in often by Amelu, was the mispronunciation and distortion of words, amounting not seldom to real punning. Thus for saiwasko, the name of a species of dragon-fly, he would repeat: Saiwasukw’, sauwatsko, sauwasko, saiwaseko, saiwatshko, etc. Sometimes when the Indians were telling legends in their own language, they would deliberately mispronounce or distort words to see if the writer noticed the difference — if he did not at the time they would generally tell him, and have a little fun over it. When they came to the parts of the stories where the animals played tricks on one another they would stop to laugh over it, making fun of those who couldn’t talk very well. The Indians would laugh to themseles when the writer [Chamberlain] used a proper Kootenay term, and one of the white men about [i.e. in the vicinity] a slang or jargon term without knowing it.

— page 509

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One of the Kootenays, who knew that the whites thought the Chinese and Indians looked alike, pointed out to the writer several differences between them of a physical character, and then remarked, in the Chinook jargon, ‘halo siwash‘ — not Indian. 

— page 512

Here’s more Chinuk Wawa being used to express cultural values around gender:

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The Kootenay youth is more afraid of doing ‘woman’s work’ than he is of the ‘fire-wagon’ [i.e. railway train, from Chinuk Wawa páya-t’síkt’sik]. This was the case with Amelu, the writer’s guide, who was with difficulty persuaded to make his own pan-bread on the trail. He was ‘hiyu shame‘ (much ashamed), and used to make it always before an Indian camp was reached.

— page 513

A last selection emphasizes that the Kootenays used Chinuk Wawa with strangers and valued those who tried to learn their Native language:

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Altogether, as an eminent Americanist once said, the Indian is a man, even as we are men. This the writer knows by actual experience, from the moment of his first arrival among the Kootenays, when halo naika cumtux (Chinook jargon for ‘I don’t know’) was the only conversation on their part, to the time when he sat with them, round the campfire and himself began the story-telling: Kanaqe Skinkuts, ‘The Coyote was going along.’

— page 513

What do you think?

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