Smallpox in Chinuk Wawa

coming of the spirit of pestilence

One good source (image source: Goodreads)

There’s a word for that. Devoted readers may realize that this blog has so far only touched on one of the biggest issues in Pacific Northwest history: smallpox.

Herewith, some documentation of smallpox’s interaction with that other gigantic intercultural force, Chinook Jargon.

Preliminary observations: I hadn’t known that…

  • In 1775-1782 a smallpox epidemic had raged through the American settler population. Could this have been brought to the Northwest Coast by that era’s shipborne fur traders and explorers?
  • In 1803 president Thomas Jefferson had instructed Lewis & Clark to bring “some matter of the kine-pox” along in order to teach Indians how to vaccinate. Did the Corps of Discovery follow through on this order, and was any vaccine left by the time they reached Chinook country?

But what we do do know is that smallpox wound up decimating Native populations. “Decimate” has the etymological meaning “to reduce to one-tenth”. That, pretty literally, is the tragedy that happened.

And while it’s somewhat hard to find in the most popular Chinook Jargon dictionaries, this inescapable disease indeed left its marks on the language. I’ve found a number of traces proving this.

Circa 1870, lower Columbia River: ‘smallpox’ is paia-skin-sik or masache-paia-skin-sik, remembered in Father St. Onge’s manuscript dictionary (1892).

Circa 1876, Euchiniko River, BC: A Dakelh/”Carrier” Dene man’s conversation with an explorer is quoted with reasonable accuracy, reporting the personal and ecological impacts of the dissease.

(Note that his “nika one stop” reflects universal Chinuk Wawa kʰapit-íxt náyka míłayt (just-one I exist) ‘I’m alone’, and genuine British Columbia dialect CW stop ‘to exist’, which we also know from the Aboriginal-written letters in Kamloops Chinuk pipa writing. BC CW also sometimes used wan (one) instead of íxt for ‘one’, although in my experience that was mostly in contexts of counting or of time-telling.)

smallpox dawson

“Heard your horse’s bell and thought you were Klusklus Indians come over,” he said, using a mix of English and Chinook. “Made me angry until I saw you weren’t them.”

“Where’re you headed?” George asked.

“Quesnel,” said the man. “Taking my winter furs to sell.”

“Dan, put the kettle on for tea,” said George as the man lowered his pack against a tree. The boy held his hands out to the fire and drew close to the burning logs. “Where do you live?”

“Up the river,” replied the man. “Me and the boy.”

“Where are the rest of your people?”

“My father died when I was young, and then my mother and all the rest of them. Twelve, thirteen years ago. Smallpox. One after another I bury them all, but never get sick myself. Connoway mamlouse, nika one stop! Hi-yu sick tum-tum, hi-yu cly. [English translation of this:] All dead. I one stop! Much grief, much lamenting. Before smallpox good trails in all directions. Now, few trails, much blowdown. Travel is hard.”

— from “George Mercer Dawson“, page 65

The preceding makes it sound as if the man were using the word smallpox — smolpoks? — in Jargon, but it’s indeterminate on that score. For what it’s worth, that would match George Shaw’s 1909 use of that word.

Circa 1882 in central Washington Territory, the Jargon term is given as háyú páya:

smallpox moses

That fall the hi-yu fire” (smallpox) raged through the tribes, felling one of Moses’ wives, his little daughter, and his brother, who was living in the household.

— from “Half-Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses“, page 194

And again circa 1891 in north-central Washington, though I haven’t yet checked if this is duplicating the source just cited:

smallpox kamiakin

Before he could act, the “hi-yu fire” exacted a merciless toll, especially among the children.

— from “Finding Chief Kamiakin: The Life and Legacy of a Northwest Patriot“, page 131

In Chinuk Wawa, there’s a theme of either using

  1. the English word for this brand-new disease, or else
  2. metaphorically calling smallpox a “burning disease of the skin”, which well describes its two main symptoms, a protracted high fever and numerous contagious pustules. An effective contrast is here made with páya-sík (piah-sick), defined by Gibbs (1863:21) as ‘the veneral disease’ and thus likely ‘syphilis’ — otherwise known to Europeans as the ‘great pox‘.

What do you think?