1854: Alki’s Denny has more to say about Chinuk Wawa monolinguals making bad citizens


Arthur Armstrong Denny (image credit: Wikipedia)

A letter from well-known Alki (soon to be Seattle) pioneer A[rthur] A. Denny (1822-1899) clarifies what had been reported of his views expressed at the Territorial Assembly session…

And yes, it was still called Alki (áłqi ‘eventually; in the future’), as an advertisement on the same newspaper page shows.

Here I excerpt the central section of Denny’s letter to the editor, breaking his flowery prose…which would be hard to translate into Chinuk Wawa…into separately spaced paragraphs.

I’ll highlight the sentence that I want to discuss further…

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I am perfectly willing to be considered as opposed to half-breed Indians being allowed to vote as a class, but I must ever insist that the law should so distinctly set forth who ought to vote, or to make the distinction so clearly between those half-breeds whom virtue and intelligence qualify to vote, and those whose rank is the same by blood but so degraded that they are not above the unlettered savage, that judges of election can have no difficulty in deciding whether they are legal voters or not.

But, under this clause, the question is left to a different board of judges in every precinct throughout the Territory as to who have adopted the habits and customs of civilized life and who have not; also whether the person proposing to vote possesses the requisite amount of the blood of the white, thus creating endless difficulty, strife, and contention.

While I admit that there are those of this class who should be allowed the right of suffrage, I ask where is the line of distinction by which we are, under this law, to determine or distinguish the one from the other?

One may hold that any Indian having the resemblance in color of a half-breed, wearing the clothes of the white man and speaking Chinook, is a qualified elector, while another may contend that he must rank a little higher in the scale of being, and the result must be injurious and dangerous to our free institutions. 

Guard the ballot box as the palladium of our liberties, and extend the right of suffrage to all American citizens and to those who, coming here in honor to our institutions, desire to make the country a home, and are devoted to our government; but do not place on an equality with them the untutored savage by enacting a law that will bear this construction almost as readily as it will the opposite.

— from the Olympia (WA) Pioneer and Democrat of April 29, 1854, page 3, column 2 

This whole subject is really fascinating to me. If you’ve ever set up a club, you know that you have to have rules about who gets to join. The pioneer legislators of baby Washington Territory were arguing over exactly that.

With that highlighted sentence, Denny is describing one set of possible standards for letting folks with Indian blood vote. I imagine he’s verbalizing ideas that he encountered in conversations with fellow minority (i.e. White) residents: a person is White enough, if they’re not as brown as some darker-skinned Indians are, and if they neither dress Indian nor talk Indian.

Here and in my previous article about the “half-breed suffrage” issue, it’s fascinating to glean what sort of in-between status Chinuk Wawa had in the minds of Pacific Northwesterners.

Everyone who lived here knew Jargon wasn’t the same as (other) tribal languages, and everyone knew it wasn’t the same as (other) Settler languages.

In other words, if you were an Indigenous person who spoke Jargon, you showed you were adapting to White culture, just as you visibly did by wearing Settler-style clothes.

And yet there remained the awareness in everyone’s minds that Chinook Jargon wasn’t entirely White, nor entirely Indian.

As I noted in my previous article on this subject, the presence of a large population who only spoke Jargon was prominent. And it was hard to explain Settler governmental structure, operations, and issues in Jargon.

So people kept on tussling over the concepts involved here…who could participate in Territorial government without needing onerous accommodation?

What do you think?