Medicine Man’s Success

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Women play a key role in two episodes recounted by an overeducated post-frontier central Washington farmer, who quotes Moses-Columbia Salish people’s Chinuk Wawa words.

The writer is the prosperous Scottish immigrant William Ker (1852-1925); click that link to learn of his tight connections via the Moxee Plantation with telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and the founders of National Geographic!

william ker and sam hubbard

William Ker & Samuel Hubbard (image credit:

Chinook Jargon always had friends in high places…

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William Ker home, Moxee Plantation (image credit:

Ker describes witnessing a medicine manʹs “sucking” t’əmánəwas cure of a “sick klootchman” patient, after which he asks a Native acquaintance to explain it:

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As the young Indians began to steal away I came to myself and found that I had been standing spellbound for over two hours. Joining myself to the chief, I asked him what it all meant. He replied: “Sick kloochman, mamook medicine.” (A sick woman, we have been trying to cure her.) 

“But do you really believe,” I asked, “that that will cure her?” He answered: “Klonass yaka chaco kloshe, klonass wake. Taleat kakwa Boston medicine man.” (Perhaps it will do good, perhaps not — just the same as with a white doctor.) Nor could I get any thing more out of him. We walked on and it occurred to me that few if any white doctors were possessed of the necessary nerve to practice amoog the Indians. Some little time before they had calmly killed one of their medicine men on tbe reservation because an undue proportion of his patients died. The post should certainly be an honorable and remunerative one.

Ker goes on to tell of Indian hop pickers who “imitate their Boston brethren and go on a strike” against him. The negotiations, not surprisingly, proceed in the Jargon:

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I pointed out that I, too, was a tyee [‘chief’], and if I said to my people “Do this,” it was done. I added much that was forceful and eloquent to the same effect.

So-happy stood, with his blanket wrapped around him in folds that would have made a Roman senator pale with envy. His proud face had the calm of graven image and the dark fire of his eye slumbered. As is the courteous wont of the Indian, he spoke no word for some time, weighing my talk. Then he opened his lips and, gazing in an abstracted way at the distant prospect, said: “Kloochman yaka kumtux, halo nika kumtux okok” (it is a matter for the women, I know nothing about it), and the miserable savage strode into his wigwam with an air of mingled conscientiousness, self approval and dignity which I have never seen equaled even among our own superb people.

Meditating much I rode homeward. Subsequently the squaw recovered, and I compromised with the sub-chief for $1.12½ per box.

— from the Yakima (WA) Herald of June 14, 1894, page 4, columns 1-2

Ker’s quotations of Jargon sound accurate for the time and place, and thus fluent.

For example, the first quoted sentence may actually illustrate the classic Chinook Jargon structure where the subject of an intransitive sentence comes last. (Ker may have misinterpreted this expression as an adjective modifying a noun phrase; see below.)

We also see indications of a period-appropriate transition to stronger English influence, just as we find at Kamloops in the 1890s. An instance of this is the shift from the older, French-derived Jargon word lamatsín to a more recent synonym borrowed from local spoken English, < medicine >. This becomes part of an innovative expression for ‘doctor’, < medicine man >.

Another spot-on detail is Sohappy’s use of the resumptive third-person pronoun, that is, saying literally ‘woman she knows’. Making it even more authentic is that this yaka (‘she’) doesn’t necessarily match in number with the sentence’s subject, which along with Ker we can reasonably take as the plural ‘women’. In other words, we may have here the widespread usage — also documented in spades around Kamloops — of yaka standing for both singulars and plurals.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the three Chinuk Wawa sentences:

Sick kloochman, mamook medicine.
sík łúchmən, mámuk médisin*.
sick woman, make medicine.
‘The woman is sick, do a treatment.’ /
‘(There’s) a sick woman, do a treatment.’

Klonass yaka chaco kloshe, klonass wake. Taleat kakwa Boston medicine man.
t’łúnas yáka chaku-łúsh, t’łúnas wík. tlét kákwa bástən médisin*-mán. 
maybe she become-well, maybe not. really like American medicine-man.
‘Maybe she’ll recover, maybe not. It’s just like (with) a White doctor.’

Kloochman yaka kumtux (Ø), halo nika kumtux okok
łúchmən yaka kə́mtəks (Ø), hílu náyka kə́mtəks úkuk.
woman she know (it), not I know this.
‘Women know about it, I know nothing about this.’

Pretty solid material here, I’d say.

To read more of the Sohappy family’s association with Chinuk Wawa, see “Another Indian Winter Weather Forecast“.

What do you think?
qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?