Jeremiah Curtin & Chinuk Wawa


Jeremiah Curtin (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A really great read, that you’ve never heard of is the “Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin“.Not that I mean to get your hopes up too high, Chinuk Wawa-wise; anthropologist Curtin (1835-1906) came along kind of late in the game, in Oregon & Washington’s post-frontier period.

And his use of the Jargon is mostly documented in only an indirect way.

But what we do know suggests a skilled speaker and listener with quite a keen eye.

I want to cite liberally here from James Constantine Pilling’s remarkable 1893 “Bibliography of the Chinookan Languages“:

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Jeremiah Curtin was born in Milwaukee, Wis., about 1835. He had little education in childhood, but at the age of twenty or twenty-one prepared himself to enter Phillips Exeter Academy, made extraordinary progress, and soon entered Harvard College, where he was graduated in 1863. By this time he had become noted among his classmates and acquaintances for his wonderful facility as a linguist. On leaving college he had acquired a good knowledge of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Roumanian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Gothic, German, and Finnish, besides Greek and Latin. He had also made considerable progress in Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit, and was beginning to speak Russian. When Admiral Lissofsky’s fleet visited this country, in 1864, Curtin became acquainted with the officers and accompanied the expedition on its return to Russia. In St. Petersburg he obtained employment as a translator of polyglot telegraphic dispatches, but he was presently appointed by Mr. Seward to the office of secretary of the United States legation, and he held this place till 1868. Turing this period he became familiar with the Polish, Bohemian, Lithuanian, Lettish, and Hungarian languages, and made a beginning in Turkish. From 1868 till 1877 he traveled in eastern Europe and in Asia, apparently in the service of the Russian government. In 1873, at the celebration at Prague of the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Huss, he delivered the oration, speaking with great eloquence in the Bohemian language. During his travels in the Danube country he learned to speak Slavonian, Croatian, Servian, and Bulgarian. He lived for some time in the Caucasus, where he learned Mingrelian, Abkasian, and Armenian. At the beginning of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877, he left the Russian dominions, and, after a year in London, returned to his native country. Since then he has been studying the languages of the American Indians and has made valuable researches under the auspices of Maj. John W. Powell and the Bureau of Ethnology. He is said to be acquainted with more than fifty languages.— Appleton’s Cyclop. of Am. Biog.

— page 19

Here now is the little we directly know of his Jargon use, from January 22, 1885, in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation neighborhood of north-central Oregon:

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I stopped at Oak Grove. The ‘village’ contained a store and three houses half a mile or so apart. The merchant was building a house; none of the rooms were finished; he and his family occupied the kitchen. They made a bed for us on the floor of the living room. The next morning I found that we could not continue the journey. There was no sleigh for hire; we could not go on horseback, for no one had been through since the great storm. For two days I sat by the kitchen stove and studied The Chinook Jargon, the only book my host possessed.

— page 353

Whichever Jargon dictionary this refers to (the supposed title is just descriptive, and Myron Eells book of that title didn’t come out till a decade later), it says a lot about that language’s continuing currency at Warm Springs that this was the only book in the house.

On page 355, Curtin makes one of his many critical observations about the misguided inefficiency of American benevolent institutions, noting that none of the local Indian kids speak English, despite years of American-style schooling.

Between his talent for languages and being stuck in an English-light, Jargon-heavy environment, I have no doubt Curtin learned Chinuk Wawa as well as any human being ever did in two days of reading!

During these passages of his life story, Curtin tells of doing “work on the Warm Spring language with McKay, an Indian who had traveled in American and Europe with a troupe.” This is Donald McKay, “star of a Snake Oil troupe“, who we have read about previously in connection with the Modoc War.

This tribal language referred to is Kiksht Upper Chinookan, a.k.a. Wasco / Wishram.  Stories collected from McKay by Curtin were later published in Edward Sapir’s “Wishram Texts” — forming a large portion of that book. Although Donald is consistently described by historical eyewitnesses as quite a polyglot of Native languages, and would surely have spoken good English, I suspect Chinuk Wawa played some role in getting these tales taken down from him and Charlie Pitt of Warm Springs. An examination of the English-language versions is in order, to see if there are signs of translation. We certainly know that Curtin documented a good chunk of Kiksht language; from whom, I’m not sure, but again Jargon is not unlikely to have played a part.

There’s lots more in Curtin’s autobiography that will fascinate you. The outlook and experiences of this largely self-taught genius were really quite something!

What do you think?
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