1840: Chinook Jargon spread to Puget Sound early…but nobody understood it

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A historical reenactment of a heavily Chinuk Wawa-centred event…

If you go read the entire article, you’ll learn plenty about the famous < sahale stick > (literally ‘above/Heaven stick’) / Catholic Ladder, an early teaching tool invented to give Pacific Northwest Indigenous people some idea of the Catholic religion.

Here, though, I’ll just excerpt some words of an 1840 witness to some of the earliest “Indian-to-Indian transmission” of Chinook Jargon, which I find brilliantly illuminating, albeit for a surprising reason.

You see, the Jargon remained sparsely known on Puget Sound (where the following happened) until significant Settler populations arrived…more than a decde after today’s anecdote! The language was still mostly confined to the lower Columbia River region, where it was thriving and turning into a communitywide first language.

(A byproduct of that observation — few at the Western Washington Indian treaty sessions of 1854 and 1855 could understand much of what was being presented by the US side.)

So how was it that large crowds of Native people who had never interacted with a priest were able to sing along to Jargon hymns?

Ahhh: the same way I originally learned the Frère Jacques song, by rote learning. Memorization, not comprehension.

Which supplies us a really neat demonstration that Chinuk Wawa was present, but not understood, on Puget Sound back in 1840!

Read on…

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…[evidently this is set in late May, 1840 on Whidbey Island, Washington] Here is Father Blanchet’s account of the day: 

“I began the instruction by making the sign of the cross in Chinook jargon, and to my great astonishment, all the assembly, men, women and children, made the same, pronouncing the words exactly as practical and fervent Christians. I began to sing the first verse of a hymn in the Chinook jargon, and, to my great wonder, all continued to sing it to the end, with exact precision. I admired the success [Skagit Chief] Tsla-lakum had had in teachin his people; I blessed the Lord for the good dispositions of the Indians and my joy was so great that I shed tears of gratitude.”

— from the Seattle (WA) Catholic Northwest Progress of August 9, 1940, pages 1 & 3

íkta máyka chaku-kə́mtəks?
What have you learned?