Sproat and a discovery: levels of tyee-ness

In Gilbert Malcolm Sproat’s 1868 participant ethnography avant la lettre

“Big chief” persisted in US popular culture, thus this racist anti-marijuana poster from 1970 (image credit: Reddit)

…he reports (page 115) that among the local Native people, “some are called high chiefs, others half chiefs or small chiefs”.

And yet I haven’t found equivalent expressions in their Nuučaan’uł language, only single words that mean respectively ‘chief’ and ‘speaker/noble person’ (as well as related terminology such as the portion of a traditional longhouse where each of these lives).

To what extent, then, do Sproat’s phrasings reflect Chinook Wawa? He says plenty of First Nations folks around him in the (Port) Alberni, BC area spoke CW.

Well now, CW’s sáx̣ali-táyí (literally ‘high-chief’) is not really available for such expressions of human rank, because it’s always been the normal expression for ‘God’!

But the historical record, primarily from the Vancouver Island sub-dialect of Jargon, indeed confirms Sproat as perhaps (indirectly) the first documentor of three relevant CW expressions, along the lines of:

  1. háyás(h) táyí ‘big chief’, i.e. a widely respected one, spelled for example < hyas tyhee >, < hyas tyee >, < hyass tyhee >. (Notably, Settlers sometimes folk-etymologized CW háyás(h) ___ as ‘high tyee‘ etc. in reference to someone’s social position.)
  2. sítkum táyí ‘half/middle chief’, spelled variously: < sitcum tyee > < sitcum tyhee > < sitkum tyhee >, etc..
  3. and tənəs-táyí ‘little chief’, in various spellings, which seems to have had derisive overtones; the most neutral occurrence I’m noticing is in L.N. St. Onge’s 1892 manuscript dictionary: < tanas-tai > ‘esquire’.

This is quite fun to realize. It’s a new discovery for us students of the Jargon!

I can imagine these ranks transferring usefully to modern-day governance systems. (I think tənəs-táyí might work well for ‘assistant manager’ or ‘shift leader’!) 

What do you think?