Puyallups, treaty negotiations, and Chinuk Wawa

I’m learning good things from “Forked Tongues at Sequalitchew: A Critical Indigenist Anthropology of Place in Nisqually Territory” by Karen Marie Capuder (PhD dissertation, University of Washington, 2013).

As a linguistic archaeologist, I come to this with my own particular set of eyes and ears. I see plenty relating to Chinuk Wawa here that refines our understanding about this language’s very important place in Pacific NW history.

This dissertation is the fulfillment of a request by Hereditary Chief and Elder Leonard Nisqually, and it’s written by a Native researcher, with a consistent standpoint of taking Native views of their own history into account.

That’s quite refreshing. I’d like to very briefly highlight a couple of ways this is so.

To give you an implicit sense of why the Jargon was such a crucial tool in frontier times, here’s a useful item of background information from page 183:

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In other words, just a handful of years prior to the formalization of Washington Territory, newcomers couldn’t have had any realistic expectation of being understood by the Native people who enormously outnumbered them — if it hadn’t been for the already existing intercultural language, Chinook Jargon.  Most settlers were coming in overland northward, and along the way picking up some useful Jargon in (modern) Oregon and the Fort Vancouver-Cowlitz Farms-Fort Nisqually corridor.

From the following page, for a change we see individual Puget Sound Salish people named who spoke Chinuk Wawa quite early for that geographic zone (1847):

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I appreciate the following evaluation of the role that Chinuk Wawa played in attempts at fitting the square peg of Native culture into the round hole of mid-1850s Settler government (page 195):

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From page 196, a continued sensitivity to the implications of using the Jargon in Settler-Native negotiations:

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From pages 224-225, powerfully precise documentation about the limitations on Native understanding of Settler assumptions and intentions. This oral history type of evidence is irreplaceable in reconstructing the use of Jargon in new locales, where by definition the Aboriginal participants in the communication weren’t going to be leaving behind many written documents:

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I am always at pains to contribute my expert (or at least, PhD) perspective on “how effective” Chinook Jargon was. The vocabulary was indeed small, if you’re counting individual morphemes such as roots and affixes. But — somewhat counter to this oft-repeated claim of lexical scarcity — it was of a considerable size, when you acknowledge the Jargon’s grammatical structure that leans super heavily on syntactic arrangement of words into sometimes multi-layered phrases, clauses, and topicalized structures. What’s been even more drastically un- or under-acknowledged in previous scholarship is that in addition, this was a language and, in the mouths of White settlers, a culture that were absolutely foreign and new to the Indigenous people of Puget Sound. (And those newcomers had little grasp of Indigenous ways.)

On balance, I’m trying to give people the understanding that Chinuk Wawa, as reconstructed via the linguistic archaeology research I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, is a rare trove of data proving — independently of any individual’s oral or written evaluations of events — how and why the Stevens Treaties with the tribes were bound to result in (at best) ongoing renegotiations, and (at worst) lots of conflict over differing understandings.

What do you think?
qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?