Whoa Haw, God Dam: How they talked Chinook in Idaho

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Those of you who are saying “That’s no surprise” are duly noted, but let’s read on…

…We have relatively little documentation of the Jargon in Idaho, so this is valuable material.

Plus, an under-documented portion of the Chinuk Wawa vocabulary is cuss words. We know that Chinookers used naughty nouns and exclamations taken from English, based on scattered but consistent reports. Recall that English-speakers in the 1800s rarely recorded an accurate picture of their own profanity, and that reticence transferred to the Jargon context. But even in a context like translated bible stories such as the voluminous Kamloops Wawa literature, we find shit, tits, and so forth proving that the facts of life were not taboo in Jargon. All this is to say that the following passages seem to indicate some cussing in the same language:

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Within forty or fifty miles of Fort Hall, which is now Idaho, we began to meet Indians every few miles. Sometimes a lone one, oftener two, but never more than three. The nearer we approached Fort Hall the bolder the Indians became, and one day Mr. Barker and I were traveling alone as the others were hunting stock, when three buck Indians stopped us in the road, held up their guns and asked for powder. We told them we had none (which was true), but they did not believe us and so proceeded to pull me out of the wagon when Uncle Sumner Barker applied his whip right vigorously, using some strong language which they understood, for most Indians would pick up a whip and swing it around and say, “Whoa Haw, God Dam“.

— from Mary Jane Hayden, “Pioneer Days” (San Jose, CA: Murgotten’s Press, 1915), page 17

Just following, we find that the White immigrants are less acquainted with Chinuk Wawa than the Idaho Indians are:

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The farther we traveled the deeper the dust, and we got into the habit of each team keeping by itself, and one day there came a young, clean, well-dressed Indian running and skipping along out of the hills and going up to Mr. Hayden (who was walking), greeting him in the most cordial manner and putting his arm around Mr. Hayden who returned the compliment, and thus they walked and tried to talk for quite a time, when the Indian stopped and pointing towards the wagon asked in Chinook how many wagons were coming before the sun went down. No one had spoken a word while the two were talking. I did not know what he said, but something told me what he meant and I answered by signs “twenty”, by holding up both hands twice with all fingers and thumbs extended. He understood, for he immediately turned and run [sic] back into the hills. I have learned much of the Chinook language since and will repeat what he said, “Canche, Chick, Chick, Charoo [charco], Caper, Okoke sun, Memeluse“. He was only a runner or spy. I knew or thought by his dress that he must have been one of the Fort Hall Indians and understood some English. 

— pages 17-18

Honestly, that’s about it for the Idaho Chinook Jargon in this book.

But, in a nearby part of Oregon, we get not just some Jargon but some information about meaningful gestures:

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We had been warned of the danger of being drawn into the current at the Cascades [of the Columbia River] and so hired an Indian to pilot us to the right landing. On getting to the landing we expected to get an Indian to take our boat over the falls as they did the whale boats, but they looked at it, shook their heads, saying in Chinook, “Wake Close Kanim, wake tickey.” Interpreted, “It is not a good boat and I don’t want to.” And they didn’t.

— page 23

Go read the whole book to experience that other rarity, a woman’s telling of pioneer life. It’s a good read!

What do you think?