1899: Red Men’s Day at the Spokane Fair

spokane fair

An early Spokane Fair (image credit: Spokesman-Review)

It was after “the closing of the frontier”, but Red Men’s Day at the Spokane Fair brought out the editor’s untranslated Chinuk Wawa for knowledgeable news readers’ benefit:

The Jargon portion of this post-frontier newspaper article is in an unusual — in fact unique — spelling system.

My devoted readers will know that this screams “genuine Chinook Jargon”, as opposed to something stolen from (or concocted with the help of) a published dictionary.

red mens day

Red Men’s Day, Friday, Oct. 6th, will be a prominent feature at the Spokane Industrial Exposition. You should see the greatest parade ever given in the northwest. Pocahontas, (Miss Flossie Ferrell), the Indian princess, and her escort of Indian maidens and chiefs. The great ghost dance as proclaimed by the swiftest runners. Indian bands and bands of Red Men. Grand display of daylight fire works. Great sun pow wow of the Improved Order of Red Men of the Northwest. Coneway Yacka Pill Siwashe’s [sic] Chico Copa Spokane Kacka [sic] Ilehea.

— from the Ritzville (WA) Adams County News of September 13, 1899, page 3, column 3

Here’s the skinny on that Chinook sentence: 

< Coneway Yacka Pill Siwashe’s [sic] Chico Copa Spokane Kacka [sic] Ilehea. >
kʰánawi yaka pʰíl s(h)áwásh-əz cháku kʰúpa spokʰǽn yaka ílihi.
all his/their red Indian-s come to Spokane its place.
‘All of the(ir)* Red Indians are coming to the location of Spokane.’

That ain’t necessarily the fluentest expression in the language.

  • Using yaka as a plural possessive ‘their’ would be usual for the very best northern-dialect speakers of CW, who were more often Indigenous than other ethnicities. But I’m not convinced that the writer, who it’s safe to assume was a White male, hoped for us to find such a meaning here. What I suspect is that he was falling into an English-influenced habit seen in other Settlers who had fallen out of the habit of active CW speaking. In such examples, an individual’s knowledge of Jargon went through a “bottleneck” of disuse, where úkuk ‘this; that; these; those’ was liable to be partially forgotten, and the probably more frequent and crucial word yaka ‘(s)he; they’ expanded into that cognitive space.
  • The addition of the English-language -əz onto a noun is vastly more indicative of a White speaker/writer than of vibrant Chinook skillz.
  • The phrasing of spokʰǽn yaka ílihi is clunky. Using yaka to signal an inanimate possessor (here, “Spokane”) is highly unusual in fluent Jargon. Saying this from another viewpoint, there’s already an extremely frequent expression in Chinuk Wawa, ____-ílihi (also ____-tʰáwn), to refer to a specific location such as a city. On both counts, we’d expect *< Spokane Ilehea > here, if the writer were (still) in the habit of speaking Jargon a lot. 

As a result, I believe today’s sample of the language is both the real McCoy and a fine specimen of what CW became among the segment of the population that was gradually forgetting it.

(I refer my linguist readers to the literature on “language attrition” and “language death”.)

Even a mere 8-word Chinook sentence, when taken in its full context, shows us a great deal that’s of interest.

PS: the Improved Order of Red Men, for all of its sentimental attachment to Indigenous symbolism and to Chinuk Wawa, restricted its membership to Caucasians only.

What do you think?

red men

“Detail, Fraternal Order of Red Men in regalia, circa 1910” — notice Chinuk Wawa word < tillicum> on banner (image credit: HistoryLink)