Indian suffrage, Chinuk Wawa, and sarcasm

native suffrage

MOVE ON! (Image credit: Library of Congress)

Chinuk Wawa was the original Ebonics, evidently.

Some of my readers will remember the often-revolting Ebonics controversy. My memory places it in 1996; it had to do with the Oakland, California school board proposing to accommodate African-American kids’ home language, which they realized was a nonstandard variety of English. Linguists acknowledge this reality, typically referring to that general ethnolect (way of speaking that characterizes an ethnic group) by the bland acronym “AAVE”, African-American Vernacular English. The Oakland school board’s proposal possibly got the worst possible reception nationwide, and one reason might have been that the name “Ebonics” that they used for AAVE triggered many non-black minds with its racial overtones.

I’ve written before on my site about attitudes towards Chinook Jargon during its heyday. In the times when this pidgin-creole language was a daily presence in Settler lives, those people displayed a mix of attitudes. The most frequent one to be expressed overtly was disdain, I’ve come to believe. It was only later, in memory, that Chinuk Wawa gained a nostalgic glow of affection among non-Natives. This, too, had everything to do with race relations, as we’re going to vividly see in reading the following vintage newspaper editorial.

First, a little historical background on certain points. The Civil War between the southern and northern states had just ended, African-American slaves were recently freed, and the extension of voting rights to them was a major topic. This is why “manhood suffrage” supplies the theme of the article below. Suffrage was far from universal at the time, with not only slaves but many disadvantaged males (and all females) denied the vote. Active taxpayer status and literacy requirements were common; the latter is why today’s clipping speaks of making a common form of the latter — an ability to read the US Constitution — accessible to non-speakers of standard English.

Remember also that Indian wars were a fresh memory for Pacific Northwest settlers, and there were more to come. Anxiety between Natives and non-Natives was pretty high about each others’ motives and trustworthiness.

It appears to me that the newspaper editor is playing on those currents to make (typically for the era) an extremely partisan pronouncement, via a partly joking, partly serious logical suggestion for keeping his political opponents in Oregon under control. A key element in his sarcasm is the prevailing stance toward Chinook Jargon.

Herewith his modest proposal:

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Impartial Suffrage. —While we are so anxious to establish Manhood Suffrage, we should not forget that a large portion of the inhabitants of this country are disfranchised by cruel, tyrannical laws. In this we do not refer to our colored brethren, but to the descendants of the aborigines of the Columbia Basin. The difference between our relations to the descendants of Ham and these people is, that the first were torn from their country, despoiled of property and liberty, for the advantage of the barbarous whites; while the whites came among the Indians, ate their kowse and camas, stole their horses and daughters, shot their young bucks, murdered their old men, occupied their lands and made themselves “at home,” in general way, and behaved pretty much as they pleased whenever they had the upper hand. Equal and exact justice requires that, if the colored men of the south are to be enfranchised, the Indians ought also to be allowed to vote. If it is necessary that voters shall know how to read the Constitution of the United States, this difficulty may be easily overcome by translating that instrument into the Chinook Jargon. For the extension of like facilities to our colored brethren of the south, we shall feel

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inclined to advocate the translation of the same into pure Ashantee and dialects in common use on the Guinea coast. A phonetic arrangement of the Constitution, on the basis of tbe ordinary negro-pronunciation of English at the south, will also be useful in bringing the right of suffrage within easy reach of the colored folks and many illiterate whites. But above all, we demand the electoral right for the Indians; excepting the rebellious Snakes. These, however, by taking an oath of allegiance, and swearing not to “bush whack” or go out “guerrillaing” any more, may avail themselves of tbe benefit of the law for the extension of the right of suffrage. The bearing of this movement on tbe politics of the State is obvious. By having the Indian vote principally in tbe Columbia Basin, we will be enabled to bring the inhabitants of the Great Willamette to our own terms, whenever they have the audacity to entertain ideas inimical to our interests, or disagreeable to our sensibilities.

— from the Dalles (OR) Daily Mountaineer of January 26, 1866, page 3, column 1

I would just add that there’s a surprising degree of linguistic awareness about African-American communities there, in that some recently arrived slaves would indeed be speaking particular African languages on US soil.

Kahta mika tumtum? What do you think?

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