Circa 1853: Girls just want to have fun

hew to the line

Exactly what you’d expect a pioneer Settler newspaper to have as a motto!

martha sapp

Martha is one of these women — I just don’t know which! That’s her dad. (Image credit: Washington State Historical Society)

Martha [Conner] Ellis Sapp, born circa 1844, came to the Pacific Northwest coast square in the middle of the frontier era, when you most definitely had to “do it yourself”. 

In her case, a girl desperate for some entertainment took it upon herself to learn Chinuk Wawa from a newspaper — and from neighboring Native people.

our pioneer women

pioneer women cj

We children had to depend on our labor for our toys, making for ourselves wagons, sleds, tops, bows and arrows, and what we could not make we did without. About that time father brougth home a copy of the Pioneer and Democrat with the chinook jargon in it. I never stopped until I had learned every word and also their meaning, from “Nika,” I, down to the last line, where the words were put into sentences and I felt big when the Indians came, to be called on to interpret what they said. My brothers thought it more fun to learn to sing and beat tomanawus*[.] Chief Stehi and family, and a few other families, lived near our house most of the time, so we had ample time for practice.

— from the Olympia (WA) Washington Standard of November 20, 1908, page 1, column 4

Martha’s family tried to use the Jargon to communicate with Indigenous warriors during the 1855 war, although her comments in today’s article indicate that the fighters either couldn’t or wouldn’t respond in some tribal language, maybe Lushootseed or Sahaptin.

Anyway, here’s the asterisked footnote from the above passage, putting forth a culturally skewed explanation explanation of < tomanawus >:

pioneer women tomanawus

Tomanawus means a savage incantation to cure disease. It consists of a hideous concord of vocal sounds, united with a monotonous beating upon some sonorous substance, such as dry boards, while the medicine man violently massages the patient’s body. If the patient dies, his relatives are at liberty to kill the doctor, according to the savage code, “momook tomanawus” literally means to “drive the devil out.”

— from the same column

As the PhD in Chinook Jargon who’s presenting this news clipping to you, I take it on myself to issue a correction: mamuk-t’əmánewas has a much more neutral meaning of ‘to doctor someone with your spirit powers’.

That vocabulary of the Jargon that she’s talking about is likely in fact to be the one that ran in a different paper, the Columbian, in 1853. It went on to influence quite a number of published dictionaries. Her description matches that piece. I haven’t managed to find a published Chinuk Wawa guide in the early Pioneer and Democrat…

What do you think?