I used…English words not…understood by my interpreter


James Willis Nesmith, 1820-1885 (image credit: Wikipedia)

“A Reminiscence of the Indian War, 1853” by Hon. J[ames] W[illis] Nesmith (in the Portland (OR) West Shore of May 1, 1879, pages 26-27.)

The Rogue River War was one of the earliest Native-White armed conflicts. To resolve it, a treaty-making session was held at Table Rock.

Nesmith was a Chinuk Wawa-English interpreter, and his memories serve as an illustrative example not only of the mechanics of communication in such situations, but also of the pitfalls.

For one thing, the outlook of the Whites is expressed here in Nesmith’s picturing of a few hours’ treaty negotations as quite a long time!

Another issue is that it’s screamingly clear the chain of translation was fragile. Not only was it lengthy, having to move back and forth through multiple languages, but whatever English the Rogue River Indians knew was not up to the high literary and technical level of US government work. Thus the Americans could purposely muddy the channel — see Nesmith’s “I used…English words not…understood by my interpreter”.

These facts have enormous implications for all other Pacific Northwest treaty parleys of the era; conditions were highly similar across all of those events.

Here then is a fairly lengthy excerpt that I found valuable for the access it provides us to how things operated in the vivid moment of life-or-death dealmaking:

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The business of the treaty commenced at once. Long speeches were made by General Lane and superintendent Palmer; they had to be translated twice. When an Indian spoke in the Rogue river tongue [it’s not clear which of 10 or so languages is meant by this — DDR], it was translated by an Indian interpreter into Chinook or jargon to me, when I translated it into English, when Lane or Palmer spoke the process was reversed, I giving the speech to the Indian interpreter in Chinook, ad he translating it to the Indians in their own tongue.

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This double translation of long speeches made the labor tedious, and it was not until late in the afternoon that the treaty was completed and signed. In the meantime an episode occurred which came near terminating the treaty as well as the representation, of one of the “high contracting parties” in a sudden and tragic manner. About the middle of the afternoon a young Indian came running into camp stark naked with the perspiration streaming from every pore.

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He made a brief harangue and threw himself upon the ground apparently exhausted. His speech had created great tumult among his tribe. Gen. Lane told me to inquire of the Indian interpreter the cause of the commotion, the Indian replied that a company of white men came down on Applegate creek and under command of Capt. Owen, had that morning captured an Indian, known as Jim Taylor, and had him tied up to a tree and shot to death. The hubbub and confusion among the Indians at once became intense and murder glared from each savage visage. 

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The Indian interpreter told me that the Indians were threatening to tie us up to trees and serve us as Owen’s men had served Jim Taylor. I saw some Indians gathering up lass-ropes while others drew the skin covers from their guns and the wiping sticks from their muzzles. There appeared a strong probability of our party being subject to a

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sudden volley. I explained as briefly as I could what the interpreter had communicated to me, and in order to keep our people from huddling together and thus make a better target for the savages, I used a few English words not likely to be understood by the Indian interpreter, such as “disperse” and “seggregate [sic].” In fact we kept close to the savages and separated from one another that any general firing must have been nearly as fatal to the Indians as to the whites.

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While I admit that I thought my time had come, and hurriedly thought of wife and children, I noticed nothing but coolness among my companions. Gen. l.ane sat upon a log with his arm bandaged in a sling, the lines about his mouth rigidly compressing his lips, while his eyes flashed lire. He asked brief questions and gave me sententious answers to what little the Indians said to us.

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Capt. A.J. Smith, who was prematurely grey-haired and was afflicted with a nervous snapping of the eyes, leaned upon his cavalry saber and looked anxiously down upon his well formed line of dragoons in the valley below. His eyes snapped more vigorously than usual and muttered words escaped from under the old Dragoon’s white mustache that did not sound like prayers. His squadron looked beautiful, but alas! they could render us no service.

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I sat down on a log close to old chief Joe, and having a sharp hunting knife under my hunting shirt, kept my hand near its handle, determined that there would be one Indian made “good” about the time the firing commenced. In a few moments Gen. Lane stood up and commenced to speak slowly but very distinctly. He said Owens, who has violated the armistice and killed Jim Taylor, is a bad man. He is not one of my soldiers, when I catch him he shall be punished.

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I promised to come into your camp with ten other unarmed men to secure peace. Myself and men are placed in your power; I do not believe that you are such cowardly dogs as to take advantage of our unarmed condition. I know that you have the power to murder us and can do so as quickly as you please, but what good will our blood do you? Our murder will exasperate our friends and your tribe will be hunted from the face of the earth. Let us proceed with the treaty, and instead of war have a lasting peace.

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Much more was said in this strain by the general, all rather defiant, and nothing of a begging character. The excitement gradually subsided after Lane promised to give a fair compensation for the defunct Jim Taylor in shirts and blankets.

The treaty of the 10th of September, 1853, was completed and signed, and peace restored for the next two years.

What do you think?
Kahta mesika tomtom?