1856: Monsignor Demers writes another letter

Bishop Demers portrait ©Gilroy Stained Glass

Demers (image credit: Gilroy Stained Glass)

On January 21, 1856, Modeste Demers undertook one typical minor duty of a frontier archbishop such as himself: he wrote a report to the bosses, in the form of a letter……which contained some Chinuk Wawa treasures!

(Speaking for myself, I also learn for the first time that Nanaimo used to be an HBC coaling post called Colvilletown! And that Demers read all about Rousseau’s “social contract” with interest and understanding. And that he could make smart references to Henry V and Kateri Tekakwitha.)

I’ve mentioned how terribly difficult Demers’s handwriting is for a modern English-speaker to make out; we’re really lucky, then, that a number of his letters were published in his lifetime by Francophone publishers who had an easier time of it.

The tradeoff is that such printers, back east in Québec, knew nothing of Chinuk Wawa. So they sometimes could only guess at the bizarrely spelled Indian words peppering Demers’s letters!

Before I dive into quoting the Monsignor’s quotations of actually spoken Chinook Jargon, let me remind my readers that his letters also contain a good deal of quoted CJ that’s only in his French translation. We can fairly easily back-translate, due to the high quality of his expert translations, what the original Jargon wording was in a great many cases. But I’m not focusing on rounding up all such text in today’s post. That project can wait for future posts here.

Pages 66-67, about the Native custom of “cultus potlatch”, translating the Jargon “cultus” aptly as ‘without ulterior motive’…

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Un chef, grand ami des blancs, vient me faire cadeau d’un chevreuil, en me disant: “Tiens, grand chef de la prière, tu vois que mon cœur est bon, voilà comment je traite les chefs des blancs qui viennent nous Voir, je te donne ce chevreuil sans dessein (kâltâsh). — “Mais non, lui dis-je, je n’aime pas à recevoir quelque chose sans dessein des sauvages.” —. ” Ce n’est pas moi,” ajouta-t-il, “qui ai tué ce chevreuil, c’est mon frère que voici, et c’est moi qui le paierai ;” et en disant ces mots il ôte une des chemises qu’il avait sur lui et il la donne à son frère. Vous devinerez aisément le motif qui le fit agir en cela; et grande fut sa joie lorsque je lui dis que, n’ayant pas d’effets (ekita) avec moi, je ne pouvais pas en ce moment lui rendre une autre chemise, mais que s’il venait chez moi après mon retour, mon cœur serait encore bon et que je lui en donnerais une, en échange pour la sienne ; et huit jours furent à peine écoulés que je vois arriver mon chef, qui a voyagé pendant trois jours pour venir recevoir une chemise de coton, prix du chevreuil donné sans dessein!

(A chief, a great friend of the whites, comes to give me a gift of a deer, having said to me: “Here, grand chief of the prayer, you see that my heart is good, that is how I treat the chiefs of whites who come see us, I give you this deer without design (kaltash).” [kə́ltəs(h)] – “But no,” I said, “I do not like to receive anything without intention from Indians.” – “It’s not me, “he added, “who killed this deer, it is my brother here, and I will pay him,” and saying these words he takes off one of the shirts he had on him and he gives it to his brother, you will easily guess the motive which made him act in it, and great was his joy when I told him that, having no effects (ekita) [íkta] with me, I could not at this moment give him another shirt, but that if he came to my house after my return, my heart would still be good and I would give him one, in exchange for his, and eight days had just elapsed when I see my chief arrive, who traveled for three days to come and receive a cotton shirt, the price of a deer that was given without design!)

Page 70, on the established Pacific Northwest Native custom of a “shake hands with everyone” greeting…

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Enfin je mets pieds à terre et je commence le cérémonial, peu agréable, mais indispensable du Patlatch lémain, de donner la main à toute cette multitude, si empressée et si joyeuse de revoir le premier homme delà Prière qu’ils eussent jamais vu, lors de la mission faite par moi, quatorze ans auparavant, au fort de la Bivière Fraser.

(Finally I dismount and begin the ceremonial, unpleasant, but indispensable Patlatch lemain [pá(t)łach líma], to give the hand to all the multitude, so eager and so joyful to again see the first man of the Prayer they had ever seen, during the mission I made fourteen years ago at the Fraser River fort.)

Pages 70-71 — True to lower Columbia River form (because Demers learned his Jargon around Fort Vancouver), úkuk ‘this’ is used as a definite article ‘the’. ‘Long’ makes an early appearance, but it’s known to be an established BC Jargon word. ‘This good cross’ involves a Squamish Salish word; compare how another Salish word seems to be used in Jargon in another snipping below. Demers seems to say it’s Indigenous (Salish?) influence that turned the word for ‘cross’ into < lakowen >

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Je reviens. Mais cette fois il y avait de la nouveauté, et les sauvages en sont grands amateurs; ce n’était plus, comme autrefois, le simple Léplèt qu’ils voyaient, c’était le âyàs Tayê Léplèt, le grand chef Prêtre, avec tous les ornements pontificaux; et comme ceux qui m’avaient conduit avaient eu occasion de les voir à la Mission, ils m’avaient bien recommandé, de la part du vieux Jean Baptiste, d’emporter les kanawi ékita, toutes mes belles choses avec moi; ohook long siapauk, le long chapeau (mitre); okook haul kahstik, le bâton croche ; et par-dessus tout, okook hash lakowen, la croix. Ils l’appelaient d’abord lakoi; et peu-à-peu, ne pouvant pas prononcer la lettre r, ils ont tellement défigure ce nom, qu’ils en ont fait’le mot singulier que vous voyez, et qui doit se prononcer comme èn français. J’étais attendu depuis quelques jours; aussi on m’avait préparé la meilleure cabane du village, bâtie par le prêtre qui y était demeuré avant mon arrivée sur l’île. Elle était alors occupée par un jeune chef; elle fut évacuée pour être remise à mon usage. Non-seulement a l’intérieur, mais encore sur toute la façade, la terre avait été parfaitement nettoyée, égalisée et couverte d’écailles d’huîtres et de coquilles broyées et concassées, dont l’effet n’était pas sans une certaine élégance: du moins ce soin et ce travail prouvaient leur bonne volonté et leurs égards pour honorer la visite du chef de la mission.

(I come again. But this time there was something new, and the savages are great amateurs; it was no longer, as in the past, the simple Léplèt [liplét] they saw, it was the âyàs Tayé Léplèt [háyás táyí liplét], the great Chief Priest, with all the pontifical ornaments; and as those who had led me had occasion to see them at the Mission, they had well advised me, on the part of old John the Baptist, to take away the kanawi ékita [kánawi íkta], all my beautiful things with me; okook long siapauk [úkuk lón(g) siyápuł], the long hat (miter); okook haul kahstik [úkuk x̣ə́nłq’i stík], the crooked stick; and above all, okooh hash lakowen [úkuk háʔł {a Salish word} lakʷwén* ‘this good cross’], the cross. They called it lakoi first; and little by little, not being able to pronounce the letter R, they have so disfigured the name, that they have made it the singular word which you see, and which must be pronounced as French. I had been waiting for a few days; so they had prepared for me the best hut in the village, built by the priest who had stayed there before I arrived on the island. She was then occupied by a young chief; it was evacuated to be put back to my use. Not only on the inside, but also on the whole facade, the earth had been perfectly cleaned, leveled and covered with oyster scales and shredded and crushed shells, the effect of which was not without a certain elegance at least this care and this work proved their good will and their consideration to honor the visit of the head of the mission.)

Pages 73-74 — from yet another source we hear that in early frontier times, north coastal Native people learned Chinuk Wawa hymns and prayers by ear, without necessarily understanding them…

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Suivant mes instructions, au moment que commence la sainte messe, ils entonnent leurs prières. Je dis qu’ils entonnent; parce qu’ils chantent plutôt leurs prières qu’ils ne les récitent; ils les font suivre du chant de plusieurs cantiques en leur langue, et de ceux en tchinooh que je leur avais appris autrefois au Fort Langley. Quelqu’un qui n’aurait pas eu d’oreille aurait pu seul goûter les beautés du chant qui retentit dans les miennes, pendant que je célébrais le saint sacrifice: voix en désaccord, airs tronqués et défigurés, tout contribuait à me distraire et à me faire horriblement souffrir ; pendant qu’eux, de leur côté, se livrant à tout leur enthousiasme pour le chant qu’ils aiment beaucoup, semblaient se surpasser pour me prouver leur savoir-faire.

Après la messe, j’imposai silence de la main, et je donnai la bénédiction solennelle. En leur enjoignant de revenir dans l’après-midi, je les congédiai; ils étaient contents, ils avaient vu les Kosh ekita du grand Prêtre, qui avaient été l’objet continuel de leurs désirs depuis si longtemps.

(According to my instructions, at the beginning of Holy Mass, they sing their prayers. I say they singing; because they rather sing their prayers than they recite them; they are followed by the singing of several hymns in their language, and of those in chinook which I had formerly taught them at Fort Langley. Someone who did not have an ear could alone have tasted the beauties of the song that resounded in mine, while I was celebrating the holy sacrifice: voices disagree, truncated and disfigured tunes, all contributed to distract me and to to make me suffer horribly; while they, on their side, indulging in all their enthusiasm for the song they love very much, seemed to surpass themselves to prove to me their know-how.

After Mass I silenced the hand, and gave solemn blessing. In ordering them to return in the afternoon, I dismissed them; they were happy, they had seen the Kosh ekita [łúsh íkta ‘good clothing’] of the High Priest, who had been the continual object of their desires for so long.)

Page 80…

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Le vieux Jean-Baptiste s’en retournait chez lui, lorsqu’il fut rejoint par deux canote de Tongkâs, qui le pillèrent et lui enlevèrent tout ce qu’il avait dans son canot, et, entre autres objets auxquels il tenait le plus, étaient plusieurs pâssissi (couvertures), dont sept venaient de moi, en échange pour des pommes de terre.

(Old John the Baptist was returning home, when he was joined by two Tongkâs [Tongass Alaskan Tlingit] canoes, who plundered him and took away all that he had in his boat, and, among other objects to which he was most attached, were several pâssissi (blankets), seven of which came from me, in exchange for potatoes.)

Page 87…

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Ce devin, pour rejeter son sac de médecine, doit se décider a faire un double sacrifice, celui de son caractère et de sa réputation, et celui du gain qu’il tire de sa profession— gain qui consiste principalement en possipi ou sitsim, couvertures.

(This diviner, in order to reject his bag of medicine, must decide to make a double sacrifice, that of his character and his reputation, and that of the gain he draws from his profession — gain, which consists chiefly of possipi or sitsim, covers.)

Possipi > above is a misprint for < possissi >. For < sitsim >, compare e.g. Klallam Coast Salish sisə́miʔ ‘group of thin blankets’.

Page 87-88 — by the mid-1850s, the Oblate missionaries had already gotten a number of hymns and prayers, which had been brought in Chinuk Wawa from the lower Columbia River) translated into BC’s lower mainland Salish languages…

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Tous ensuite se mirent à genoux, et faisant un second signe de croix, commencèrent à réciter ou chanter l’oraison dominicale, la salutation angélique et le symbole des apôtres, puis quelques cantiques en leur langue et en Tchinook!

(All of them then knelt down, and making a second sign of the cross, began to recite or chant the Sunday prayer, the angelic greeting and the symbol [creed?] of the apostles, then some hymns in their language and Tchinook!)

Page 98…

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Maintenant, un mot sur le vieux chef Nanaïmook, car c’est un homme qui s’est acquis de la célébrité par son zèle pour la prière, et qui, pour cela, est appelé Shavash léplet (le prêtre sauvage).

(Now, a word about the old Nanaïmook [Nanaimo] chief, because he is a man who has gained fame by his zeal for prayer, and who, for this, is called Shavash léplet [sháwásh liplét] (the Indian priest).)

— All of the preceding come from Rapport sur les Missions du Diocèse de Québec: Et autres qui en ont ci-devant fait partie. No. 12 (Avril, 1857), pages 62-99. Québec: (Typographie D’Augustin Côté te [sic] Cie.)

Qu’as-tu appris?
What have you learned?