1894: Minnie-Wah-Wah??

minnie wah wah

Illustration from “Minnie-Wah-Wah”

Everything about this story rings false…and scholars have cited it.

“Minnie-Wah-Wah” is a three-page story by W. Arthur Jones in The Overland Monthly of (Feb. 1894), pages 195-197.

It claims that “the Christian Indians” of the Inland Pacific Northwest tell of a young woman named Minnie-Wah-Wah, a convert of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s Waiilatpu Mission. This woman, on hearing of the Cayuse Indian massacre of the missionaries there, is said to have called off her marriage to a Montana Salish man and jumped to her death off a cliff. Her sacrifice “for the sake of the whites” is said to be commemorated by a series of short poems carved by travellers over a dozen years into a a large rock; they’re quoted.

As summarized above, this is a plausible enough story.

But on a closer reading, and with some critical thought, it appears to be romanticized White fiction. Cultural appropriation, as we say now.

First there’s this teenager’s name, “Minnie-Wah-Wah”. This doesn’t sound at all Salish to me, in my experience as a linguist working on that family of languages — the teenager in question is said to have been a Spokane from Chamokane Creek. What the name does resemble is the Dakota Sioux “Minnehaha“, heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s enormously popular 1855 poem “Song of Hiawatha”. A local example of that name’s allure once upon a time is found here in Spokane’s Minnehaha Park, which originally was a prosperous lawyer’s fancifully named summer home.

But why would the end of that name get changed to “Wah-Wah”? That’s an easy question for any regular reader of my website. “Wah-Wah(wáwa ‘talk; words’) was among the most recognizable Chinook Jargon words for mainstream readers in the late 1800s. And by blurring the connection with Minnehaha, Jones rendered his story less obvious fictional and more plausibly factual to the average reader.

Second, we mentioned that this was supposedly a Spokane woman. In my understanding of the extensive literature on what Jones calls the “the Whitman Mission at Waitipeii” (i.e. Waiilatpu, 1836-1847), there aren’t many — or any? — Spokanes, let alone Native people in general, recorded as converts.

Third, the location of the poem-covered rock is said to be in the “Argentian hills, in the State of Washington”. If that’s meant to be understood as a place name, it’s one that’s not known in historical or present-day documents.

Fourth, Jones claims to have discovered this rock even though “Minnie-Wah-Wah’s” own tribe “had long forgotten the place”. My skepticism knows no bounds on this point. If the young woman’s story had been so well and carefully preserved in oral tradition over the course of 47 or fewer years, it’s beyond belief that its location on the landscape would’ve been forgotten.

Fifth, the poems supposedly carved into the rock in English are dated 1838 to 1850. Now, the Whitman massacre happened in 1847, so “Minnie-Wah-Wah” would’ve still been alive for nine years, in which span nine of these poems were supposedly written about her tragic death. And I remind you that her obvious inspiration, “Minnehaha”, made her literary appearance in 1855, five years after the latest of these supposed verses! Not to mention that some of the 1830s poems are signed by putative gold prospectors, and no such are recorded in Spokane-area history until about 10 or 20 years later.

Sixth, and this involves another Chinuk Wawa connection, a supposed 1838 poem (and a supposed 1849 one) use another widely-known word, < Siwash > (s(h)áwásh ‘Indian’), from the Jargon. It’s important to realize that our earliest known occurrence of this word is in Joel Palmer’s 1847 published journals, too late for the 1838 verse and too early to have been known at the time of “Minnie-wah-wah’s” supposed death. Aside from this, use of Chinook Jargon in the Spokane region is unknown until pretty late in the 19th century.

Seventh, W. Arthur Jones hasn’t turned up in the searching I’ve done; he’s not a known, reliable witness of anything pertaining to this region.

In light of all these objections, it’s unsettling that Robert Ruby and John Brown’s ethnographic and historical book “The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun” cites Jones’ “Minnie-Wah-Wah” article as a factual authority regarding traditional Spokane Indian hunting techniques (footnote 37 on page 22). When you doubt a researcher’s skill at evaluating sources, you begin to doubt their conclusions too.

So one short article in a popular magazine turns out to be reason for quite a bit of skepticism.

What do you think?