Interesting argument — I know Salish as well as any White man, so no big deal that the 1855 treaty was made via Chinuk Wawa

ezra meeker

E Meeker (image credit: Wikipedia)


E Meany (image credit: History Link)


E Shaw (image credit: Oregon Encyclopedia)

Fifty years after the fact, the controversies over how fair the Isaac Stevens treaties were boiled to the surface in the Settler community. 

Early pioneer Ezra Meeker, a truly and enthusiastically beloved figure in the White community, had recently published a book that put forth evidence from Native people that the hurried string of mid-1850s Indian treaties was a corrupt process.

One of the book’s points is that the Medicine Creek (Olympia, Washington area) treaty suffered for being conducted in Chinook Jargon, no participant’s native language.

As a literal PhD in CJ, I recognize the valid points in such an observation. On one hand, “the Jargon” is a full and expressive language, which by December 26, 1854 had already been the communitywide mother tongue of a couple generations of speakers. (We’ve seen this acknowledged by Settlers within months of the treaties.) By the same token, at that time as well as now, neither CJ nor any tribal language had developed a vocabulary for expressing U.S. legal concepts. It’s also not clear that CJ was widely and well known among tribal leaders on south Puget Sound by that time.

But in a long, energetic defense of the sainted territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens — it’s put in virtually those words — our region’s noted historian Edmond Meany mounts a counterattack, quoting that treaty’s official interpreter.

That person, Colonel Benjamin F. Shaw (note: do not confuse him with the much later dictionary maker George Coombs Shaw!) gives a novel argument.

Shaw claims he “also” “understood” the locally spoken Nisqually dialect of the tribal language Dxʷləšúcid “as well as as any white man”, eliminating the need for “any other available interpreter”.

Those are words that raise more issues than they settle.

  • By what standard could Settlers measure fluent comprehension of Dxʷləšúcid (Lushootseed)?
    • Wouldn’t you have to advert to native Indian speakers of it for that judgment?
    • Why do we have little or no testimony historically documented that would show Native people considered any Whites good speakers of this language?
  • If Shaw understood Lushootseed so well, wouldn’t he have then grasped the Indian doubts and objections that are documented as having been expressed in the negotiations?
  • If Shaw understood Lushootseed, but evidently didn’t speak it, isn’t it obvious that he had to rely on a language foreign to him and the Indians, Chinuk Wawa, for all the attempted communication about life-and-death matters that’s obviously at the heart of treaty making/

Read for yourself and contemplate:

meeker shaw

Mr. Meeker discredits this old veteran’s testimony and slurs at the idea of making the Medicine Creek treaty through the medium of the Chinook jargon with Col. Shaw as the interpreter. Here is Mr. Shaw’s side of that:

“It is true the jargon was used, but the native Nisqually tongue was also, as I understood that as well as any white man in the country at that time. And it was because I understood the native Indians [SIC] tongue, and was well acquainted with all the Indians and had their confidence — having lived in the Puget Sound basin for nearly ten years prior to making the treaty — that made it unnecessary for Gov. Stevens to secure any other available interpreter.”

— from the Olympia (WA) Washington Standard of April 28, 1905, page 1, column 3

What’s your take?