El Comancho’s Washington, DC newspaper column on Chinook Jargon (1 of 6)

El Comancho (1867-1940) is said to have renamed himself thus, after supposedly being named “The Comanche” by a Sioux chief.

indian john comancho

Indian John and El Comancho, Lake Union (Seattle, WA), 1905 (image credit: HistoryLink)

That’s symptomatic of his lifelong urge for self-promotion and his knack for hustling (see also my previous writing about him).

As well as constantly selling articles and illustrations to outdoors magazines and to newspapers:

  • In 1910 he showed up as a publicity specialist with the Great Northern Railway, appearing in Wenatchee, Washington.
  • He befriended Montana’s iconic painter of cowboy life, Charles M. Russell (1864-1926).
  • “El Comancho’s Campfire Stories” column in the Evening Star ran, off and on, for years.
  • El Comancho also had a regular radio show on WMAQ Chicago in the late 1920s, at the same time that he showed up in Indiana newspapers a lot. I imagine there’s just a chance that some audio of him speaking is preserved??

On top of all of this, it appears that for at least 3 months in 1928, Phillips recycled his “Chinook Book” — already a more entertaining than strictly factual Jargon guide — into small weekly features on a Washington, DC newspaper’s kids page.

The idea that kids might enjoy learning an Indigenous language as much as they like comics is typical of the pages Comancho’s Chinuk Wawa morsels appeared on. These are surrounded by some pretty high-level fiction and history writing. I guess kids were smarter in my grandparents’ time 🙂

These small samplers will make a nice little mini-series for us here, with the caveat that I have only tracked down a few of them.

(Does anyone here have the luxury of Lexis/Nexis/etc. access to search old newspapers?)

Today, here’s the earliest installment that I’ve tracked down in his Chinook feature.

If you haven’t read his book (and why haven’t you, in an era when it’s free online), you’re about to learn that he’s quite the describer.

I’ll add a comment or two after this:



KLONAS — The O is pronounced as in
Home and the A as in Cat. Accent the
first syllable, give a nasal sound to the
N, and a slight hissing sound to the S.
dragging out the final syllable some-
what. KLONAS is the Chinook symbol
of doubt or uncertainty, and may mean
Maybe, Perhaps, Probably, Possibly,
Doubtful. It is almost the opposite of
KL.OSH or DELATE, which make a
thing doubly sure when used. The word 
is a prefix ordinarily, used to show
doubt on the part of the speaker on
the subject under discussion. KLONAS
NIKA CHACO is “Perhaps I will come.”
When spoken with a shoulder shrug
and a helpless gesture, the word being 
dragged out, it stands for “Who knows.”

— from the Washington (DC) Star of June 24, 1928, page 7, column 7

Some comments:

Breaking the pronunciation down to even the sounds that are effectively the same as in English is imaginative, but sort of overkill. This feeling of mine has to do with his neglect of sounds foreign to English, like the /t’ɬ/ symbolized by < KL > in < KLONAS >.

Phillips’s flair for description does us a service, though, when he comes to defining the word; it’s rather inspired of him to observe which Jargon words are more or less anytonyms to this one.

His calling this word a “prefix” seems to reflect the important fact that it’s a particle placed at the start of most clauses that it occurs in.

I always appreciate those witnesses of Chinuk-Wawa-in-use who think to tell us of gestures typically used with certain words; CW by some accounts included a good repertoire of these. Comancho is exactly the person I’d expect to be great at noticing these details, and he comes through for us today.

Finally, his gloss of the word as ‘who knows’ perfectly matches my fundamental understanding of this word. To put this in terms of a contrast that’s available to you in the Grand Ronde variety, t’ɬúnás is ‘maybe (but who knows?)’, and aláxti is ‘maybe (and I think so)’.

What do you think?