1861: Humitshoot’s letter to the editor

Many thanks to Leon Lyell of Australia, who sent to my attention the following frontier-era letter in Chinuk Wawa.

He tells me it was written by Overland Press fouding editor and Olympia pioneer Alonzo Marion Poe (1826-1866), but it’s signed pseudonymously in Jargon: “Humitshoot” 🙂 I imagine the Tulalip dateline “in Snohomish country” is equally fictitious, and that Poe was “playing Indian” as American Whites have done for centuries to make their point, whatever it may be. 

This letter was written in either 1863 or 1857, if we look at old calendars for Sundays that fell on November 22. I’d lean towards 1863, since there were many fewer newspapers around in 1857, but who knows? Leon, however, tells me that the letter was published in the Overland Press of Monday, December 2, 1861, page 2! Therefore what we’re seeing here is a misprint of the date of Sunday, November 24, 1861.

(Side note: calendar months did not have standardized names in Chinuk Wawa. You’ll often see Settlers writing either e.g. ’11th month’ as we see here, or simply ‘November’. The latter approach is normal in the 1890s+ BC letters written by Native people.) 

If my suggested later date had been accurate, the Editor addressed in today’s letter could have been A.G. Henry, editor of “rival paper The Standard“, who in 1862 physically assaulted Poe in outrage over an article the latter had published. The following novel illustration — a crude woodcut? — could serve as an illustration thereof: 


Olympia (WA) Washington Standard of June 22, 1872, page 2, column 5

In late August of 1862, Poe left permanently for California. So I’d have thought today’s letter was sent from that safe distance! And if I had to guess which newspaper this appeared in, I’d have gone straight for the Olympia Washington Standard, pretty much the most important periodical of the time in this territory. 

A useful clue to one new fact in the letter below is an 1872 reference to “Chitwoot” (‘bear’, an earlier name for Tumwater (‘waterfall’), Washington) as well as to another Jargon name, “Alki” (‘in the future’, an early name of Seattle), in one installment of a satirical “First Book of Chronicles” in the Washington Standard


Olympia (WA) Washington Standard of June 15, 1872, page 2, column 6

Having laid that small amount of (confusing) groundwork, let’s look at this published Chinuk Wawa letter.

As usual, asterisks indicate pronunciations that I’m inferring. Up front, I can generalize that the amount of parenthesized material in my translation of it, and the number of occasions where Poe omits personal pronouns, go to show you a certain distance between Poe’s CW and high fluency. I grant that this was a primarily oral language, and for most people, writing in it was a challenge, at least until the development of the Chinook-Peipa literacy in 1890s British Columbia!




Moon To[tl]eum pe ickt, Sun, 22.
mún táɬlam-pi-íxt, sánti, 22.
month ten and one, Sunday, 22. 
‘Sunday, November (’11th month’) 2[4].’ 

     Mr. PAPER TYEE — Clar-how-ye: — Elip nika nanitch mika copa Chitwoot, mika mamook nika 
     místa* pípa-táyí [1] — ɬax̣áwya — íləp [2] nayka nánich mayka kʰupa chítxwut* [3], mayka mámuk nayka [4]  
     Mister paper-boss — hello — before I see you at Bear, you make me 
     ‘Mr. Editor — Hello — At first when I met you at Chitwoot, you made me’ 

hyas utele pe mika potlach mika paper, pe mika wa-wa hyas klosh yaka. Pe ulta nika che kumtux 
hayas-yútɬiɬ pi mayka pá(t)ɬach mayka pípa, pi mayka wáwa hayas-(t)ɬúsh yaka. pi álta nayka chí kə́mtəks [5]  
very glad and you give your paper, and you say very-good he. and/but now I just.now-know 
‘very glad and you gave (me) (a copy of?) your paper, and you said it was excellent. But now I find out’

mika waw-waw “nika lolo hi-you enapoo keekwulla nika sik-i-lox. Now-wit-ka, mi-mika [SIC] mamook nika
mayka wáwa “nayka lúlu háyú ínəpʰu kíkwəli [6] nayka sik’áluks. nawítka, mayka mámuk nayka
you say “I carry many flea under my pants. indeed, you make me 
‘you say, “I carry a bunch of fleas around inside my pants.[“] Really, you’ve made me’ 

hyas shame. Mika mamook nika hyas pilton, alki quonisam nika shame, spose nanitch Tyhee
hayas-shím. mayka mámuk nayka hayas-píltən, áɬqi kwánisəm nayka shím, spos nánich táyí 
very-ashamed. you make me very-crazy, Future always I ashamed, if see chief
‘mortified. You’ve driven me quite crazy, (and) I’ll always be ashamed, whenever I meet an important

Boston klonas quonisam nika mid-lite Sno-ho-mish illehe.
bástən t’lúnas kwánisəm nayka mí(t)ɬayt [7] snohómish-ílihi. 
American maybe always I live/stay Snohomish country. 
‘White man(;) I may (have to) stay in Snohomish country forever.’


     Nowitka, Mr. Paper tyee, nika hyas sick tum-tum copa mika marsh okoak paper; tik-ke mika
     nawítka, místa* pípa-táyí, nayka hayas-sík-tə́mtəm kʰupa [8] mayka másh úkuk pípa; tíki mayka 
     indeed, Mister paper-boss, I very-hurting-heart at you send this letter; want you 
     ‘In fact, Mr. Editor, I’m very upset at your sending that letter, (and) want you’

kil-lo-piei mika mussatche waw-waw. Spose mika wake kil-lo-pie mika mus-sat-che waw-waw, pe
k’ílapay [9] mayka masáchi wáwa. spos mayka wík [10] k’ílapay mayka masáchi wáwa, pi
return your evil words. if you not return your evil words, and 
‘to take back your mean words. If you don’t take back your mean words, and’

wake pa-yee pa-sis-sa, klosh mika waw-waw copa nika six, klax-ta ha-loi-me paper, Kul Mitwhit 
wík peyéy* pásisey*
[11], (t)ɬúsh mayka wáwa kʰupa nayka síks, (t)ɬáksta [12] x̣lúymey* pípa, q’ə́l mítxwit [13]
not pay blanket, good you say to my friend, who other paper, hard to.stand 
‘(if you) don’t pay (me) a blanket, you’d better talk to my friends, who (have) another paper, Firm Stand

yaka name okoak paper(,) klax-ta waw-waw copa mika, kata mamook delate nika caqua
yaka ním úkuk pípa(,) (t)ɬáksta wáwa kʰupa mayka, qʰáta mamuk-dleyt nayka kákwa 
his name that paper, who say to you, how make-right me as  
‘is the name of that paper, who will tell you how to put me right like’

konoway Boston mamook, spose [wake] tik-ke co-pet wake mem-i-loose con-i-mox. Spose wake tik-ke
kánawi bástən [14] mámuk, spos [wík] [15] tíki kʰupít* wík-míməlus kanamákst. spos wík tíki 
all American do, if [not] want stop not-die together. if not want 
‘any White men would, if (they) didn’t want to stop being alive together. If (you) don’t want’

copet* wake mem-i-loose, klosh ne-si-ka ma-mook pooh cul-li-tan. Nika,
kʰupít wík-míməlus, (t)ɬúsh nsayka mamuk-p’ú kaláytən. nayka, 
stop not-die, good we make-shoot arrow. I, 
‘to stop being alive, let’s shoot arrows [instead of bullets?]. I am,’

Joseph Leo hə́m-ítsxwut, B.A.H. [Bachelor of Arts with Honours, but also ‘bah’ as if to say “bullshit”]
Joseph Leo stink-bear, B.A.H. 
‘Joseph Leo Smelly-Bear, B.A.H.’


místa* pípa-táyí [1]This is an invention by Poe, with ‘mister’ borrowed from spoken English and ‘paper-boss’ coined to express ‘editor’.  ɬax̣áwya is the well-known “Settler pronunciation” of the CW greeting word, which otherwise has a final /m/ sound; Poe’s spelling < clar-how-ye > is perhaps meant to evoke to linguistic urban legend that this Jargon word came from ‘Clark, how are you’. 

íləp [2] nayka nánich mayka: Literally this is ‘before’ (which is an adverb in CW) + ‘I saw you’. The intended sense seems to me to be ‘at first’ and more specifically ‘when first I saw/met you’. It’s somewhat clunky phrasing; we would expect a relative time marker such as < spose > ‘when’.   

kʰupa chítxwut* [3]: Well now, this is a neat thing to learn: the Olympia, Washington, area used to have not just one Chinuk Wawa name, < Tumwater > (tə́mwáta ‘waterfall’), but another! This chítxwut is a well-documented variant of the original ítsxwut ‘(black) bear’, i.e. not the grizzly. 

mámuk nayka [4] hayas-yútɬiɬ — This and several further sentences use an English-influenced Settler variation on the CW Causative. English word order is parallel to what we see here: ‘made me very glad’, whereas typical CW grammar keeps the mamuk(-) and the predicate inseparable, thus *mamuk-hayas-yútɬiɬ nayka*

chí kə́mtəks [5] is interesting stuff. In standard CW grammar, we’d expect the adverb chxí ‘just now’ to occupy a position preceding the subject+verb complex, thus *chí nayka (chaku-)kə́mtəks* ‘I’ve just found out’. Here, in what I take as English word-order’s influence, Poe is literally saying ‘I just now know’, and I further suspect that his (Settler-pronunciation) chí has “crowded out” the Inceptive aspect prefix chaku-. Maybe *chí chaku-* would’ve sounded redundant, phonologically. I don’t think Poe was avoiding calling himself a “cheechako” (newcomer), as that wasn’t a noun in Settler English until a bit later

kíkwəli [6] nayka sik’áluks is literally ‘beneath my pants’, if you follow anglophone Settlers’ habit of sometimes making kíkwəli into a preposition. (It’s an adverb in standard CW, so you’d have to add a preposition to express ‘beneath my pants’ — kíkwəli kʰupa nayka sik’áluks.) I have no quibble with the semantics of using kíkwəli ‘beneath, under’ in Poe’s sense of ‘inside’ one’s pants. Plus, it’s mildly hilarious. Plus, it has connotations of kíkwəli-sik’áluks ‘underpants’! You could use Poe’s phrasing to say ‘ants in my pants’ (a phrase that didn’t exist in his time)! The all-purpose word for insects tends to be exactly Poe’s < enapoo > (ínəpu ‘fleas’), and there’s no commonly accepted Jargon word for ‘ants’. 

nayka mí(t)ɬayt [7] snohómish-ílihi — Poe, like plenty of other Settlers, learned the CW trick of doing without a preposition (or of using a “null” preposition, if you’re a linguist like me), with motion and location verbs, when the meaning is already clear. A synonym of this phrase would be *nayka mí(t)ɬayt kʰupa snohómish-ílihi*. 

nayka hayas-sík-tə́mtəm kʰupa [8] mayka másh úkuk pípa Here, on the other hand, the use of the preposition kʰupa is a bit odd. To introduce the subordinate or “complement” clause of fact (‘that you sent that letter’), standard CW more likely would use pus (or its English-influenced Settler variant spos), or else nothing at all (“null”). 

k’ílapay [9] mayka masáchi wáwa  Poe’s use of k’ílapay ‘to return [intransitive], to come/go back’ as a transitive verb ‘to take back’ is not standard CW, where we’d always expect the Causative prefix, thus mamuk-k’ílapay. 

spos mayka wík [10] k’ílapay  Something I’ve observed before about Settlers’ Chinuk Wawa north of the Columbia River in frontier times is that they preserve the preference for wík to be the all-purpose negator. In slightly later times, in more solidly northern-dialect CW territory, the verb here would normally be negated by hílu, with wík limited to a few common phrasal negatives. 

peyéy* pásisey* [11] A couple small observations. First, we have here a variant form of the CW word for ‘pay’ which happens to match the usual northern-dialect form. (This form does not so easily match my rule of thumb that it was the imperatives of French Canadian verbs that came into Jargon; the implied payez! here sounds too formal and/or too plural to me.) Second, Poe-as-fake-Indian is appealing to a Coast Native custom known to the Settlers, whereby blankets were effectively a form of currency; they might be paid to a wronged party. Another faux-Indianism is the later reference to dueling with arrows, apparently in preference to guns.

nayka síks, (t)ɬáksta [12] x̣lúymey* pípa We see this phrasing very often outside the core southern-dialect region: folks would use ɬáksta ‘who?; someone’ like the English-language plural relative pronoun ‘(the ones) who’! I think it’s an understandable substitution, as the “right” word to use here is the similar-sounding “resumptive” pronoun ɬáska ‘they’. This confusion was so pervasive that in the northern dialect, as described in my dissertation, there’s no perceptible distinction between these 2 words in that function. If you want an alternative analysis, what Poe is saying here is literally ‘my friends, who are another paper’, again with questionable pronoun choice. Take your choice.

q’ə́l mítxwit [13] — This is Poe’s nonce direct translation from the English-language phrase ‘(to take) a firm stand’. It’s terrible CW 🙂 because mítxwit in Jargon is only a verb ‘to stand (up)’, never a noun. I’ve found no indication that there was any newspaper titled The Firm Stand. It’s just colorful talk. Plus, it sounds, perhaps unintentionally, like a joke about erections, which are usually referred to as q’ə́l this-or-that. 

bástən [14] — ‘American(s)’, although here the word is of course being used in its frequent sense ‘White people’, as 19th-century Settlers often spoke in terms that equated being a good upstanding citizen with acting ‘like a White man’ and of being ‘mighty White’. 

spos [wík] [15] tíki kʰupít* wík-míməlus kanamákst — Poe is really falling all over himself here. His relatively limited fluency in Jargon ties him in knots. I’m fairly sure that what he wants to say here is to ‘stay alive’! He’s gotten into such a wordy snarl that he “misnegates” the sentence, apparently leaving out a wík.


Poe’s Chinuk Wawa is pretty good, and usually it’s intelligible. It’s definitely the speech of someone who had heard lots of Jargon but was thinking in English, making him commit a number of easily avoided errors.

What do you think?