“Colonial Despatches” (Part 2: the 1867 BC chiefs’ letter)

Here’s a new and improved post about a remarkable document that I’ve discussed previously.

From the University of Victoria’s “Colonial Despatches” history research website comes this image of one of the earliest documents written in Chinuk Wawa by Indigenous people.

(It’s of a resolution superior to anything I had access to before. This allows us to clear up some questions, as you’ll see.)


I’ll repeat my previous transcription of it, this time in its original bilingual form — not just the Chinuk Wawa.

Note that, as in other early Native-written items, capitalization and punctuation aren’t what you’d expect if you’d only read standard English. Neither is standardized spelling in CW a concern; the writer seems to spell things as they sound to him.

Personal names, though, are capitalized, for the same reason that some French- and English-origin CW words below have non-phonetic standard spellings (underlined below). These words must have been taught to the writer by someone literate in those languages, I presume Catholic missionary Father Leon Fouquet. Their spellings make it harder for us to know how they were being pronounced. These are the majority of the asterisked*, that* is*, uncertain*, words* in my pronunciation guide.

Similarly, note that Jargon words are spelled here as they sounded to the writer — but the writer was obviously educated by, or coyping from the writing style of, a French-speaker. This fact is seen in spelling strategies such as < tch > for the “ch” sound, and < r > for the “x̣” sound.

I’ll throw in some footnotes. “DDR” = my translation.

To the Colonial Secretary for Governor Seimour [sic]

     We Indian Chiefs thank Governor Seymour for not allowing the white men to sell liquor 
to the Indian [sic]     There are no policemen, nor gaols in our villages, as there are amongst the white men we know 
that the liquor destroy [sic] the Indians every where [sic], they drink liquor  

nsika, Siwash Tahyee wawa merci [1] kopa Governor Seymour, poos [2] yaka wake [3] tiker poos tekop man [4] makook lum
nsayka, sáwásh táyí(,) wáwa mási kʰupa gə́vna* símo*, pus yaka wík təq’íx̣* pus tk’úp-mán mákuk lám
DDR: ‘We, the Native chiefs, say thanks to Governor Seymour, if he doesn’t want for White people to sell alcohol’ 

kopa siwash.     halo police men, [5] halo skokoom house[6] kopa nsika elehe nsika komtax poos [7] lum mamook tchako [8]
kʰupa sáwásh. hílu polís*-mán, hílu skúkum-háws kʰupa nsayka ílihi(,) nsayka kə́mtəks pus lám mamuk-chaku-
DDR: ‘to Natives. There are no police and no jails on our lands; we know whether alcohol’ 

halo siwash kopa kanewe kahr [9] mukmuk lum tlaska. [10] 
hílu sáwásh kʰupa kánawi-qʰáx̣ mə́kmək lám ɬaska.
DDR: ‘destroys Natives anywhere that they drink alcohol.’ 

The white men tell many things about taking our lands: our hearts become very sick     We wish to say to Governor 

Seymour: please protect our lands: many are our children and some go to school one of them has written this. 

Tekop man wawa ayo kopa [11] escham nsika elehe tomtom [12] tchako ayo [13] sick: nsika tekehr wawa kopa Governor 

     tk’úp-mán wáwa háyú kʰupa ískam* nsayka ílihi(,) tə́mtəm chaku-hayu-sík: nsayka təq’íx̣* wáwa kʰupa gə́vna*
DDR: ‘The Whites say a lot about taking our lands; the heart is sickened: we want to tell Governor’ 

Seymour: tlosh mika tlosh nanitch nsika elehe.     ayo tlaska nsika tanas tanas tlaska tlatoa kopa school irht yaka
símo*: ɬúsh mayka ɬúsh-nánich nsayka ílihi. háyú ɬaska nsayka tənás*(,) tə́nas* ɬaska ɬátwa kʰupa skúl(,) íxt yaka
DDR: ‘Seymour: please keep our lands safe. Our children are many; some of them go to school, one’ 

DDR: ‘made’

okok tsum.
úkuk t’sə́m.
DDR: ‘this writing.’

     We do not like to pay money to carry lunber [sic] and  other things in our canoes on the river of our ancestors 

nsika wake tekehr mash [14] tchikomen poos lolo laplanche [15] kanawe iktas kopa nsika kanim kopa tlaska tsok [16] nsika
nsayka wík təq’íx̣* másh chíkʰəmin pus lúlu laplásh(,) kánawi-íkta-s kʰupa nsayka kʰəním kʰupa ɬaska tsə́qw nsayka
DDR: ‘We don’t want to pay to carry boards and all sorts of things in our canoes on the river of our’ 

ankate oldman
ánqati úl-mán
DDR: ‘oldtime elders.’

We like to fish where our fathers fished.     nsika tekehr mamook kahr nsika papa mamook fish
                                                                     nsayka təq’íx̣* mámuk qʰáx̣ nsayka pápá mamuk-písh*
                                                                  DDR: ‘We want to work where our fathers fished.’


wawa merci [1] kopa … (‘say thanks to…’) is the usual way of saying ‘to thank someone’.

wawa merci…poos [2] yaka wake tiker: the CW here is saying ‘thank IF he doesn’t want’, a nice nuance that treats Governor Seymour’s order as a hypothetical! In actual fact, it proved impossible to stop newcomers from selling booze to Native people.

yaka wake [3] tiker deserves a couple of comments. First, this document uses wake to negate the verbs, just as the older southern / creolized dialect does, and this is seen in other early northern-dialect texts. (Later, the northern dialect came to mostly use hílu for that kind of negation.) Second, the placement of wake after the subject pronoun is not typical of earlier, southern usage; instead, it looks like new English- and/or French-language influence within BC.

poos tekop man [4] makook

police men [5] is a newer loan from English, a trend that we continue to see in BC for decades. Also note the lack of a coordinating conjunction for ‘and’ between ‘policemen’ and the following ‘jail’, a typical BC strategy for notionally related nouns.

halo skokoom house [6] kopa nsika elehe lacks the CW “existential copula” míɬayt ‘there is, there are’. This is acceptable style in all dialects, but it’s also a flag for us to look out for any possible occurrences of míɬayt. (Spoiler alert, though: there are none.)

nsika komtax poos [7] lum mamook tchako halo matches an elegant usage that we find around Kamloops a quarter-century later. The sentiment is that ‘we [in actual fact] know that alcohol destroys’ people — and yet the thing that’s known is marked as a subjunctive/”irrealis” by being introduced with pus. As a result, the connotation is ‘we know [for sure] whether alcohol destroys’.

mamook tchako [8] halo is some old-school southern-dialect grammar, combining the Causative mamuk- with the Inceptive chaku-! This is another feature that we sometimes see in earlier texts, both southern and northern, but not later on. This sequence got simplified to mamuk- by about 1890.

kanewe kahr [9] mukmuk lum tlaska — note that kanewe kahr is literally ‘anywhere, everywhere’, but given that we know BC Chinuk Wawa also uses ‘where’ to mean ‘when’, this phrase can be equally well taken as ‘anytime, whenever’.

mukmuk lum tlaska [10] uses quite an unusual word order for a transitive clause, placing the subject/agent at the end. Straining to see this as normal fluent CW, I could analyze it as a topicalization of ‘drink alcohol’, resulting in a reading ‘…when it’s drinking alcohol that they do’. However, unlike some “Atlantic creole” languages, Chinuk Wawa doesn’t much like to topicalize active verbs. So here we maybe have just a slight disfluency.

Tekop man wawa ayo kopa [11] escham… ‘the White people say a lot about taking…’ is also less than highly fluent, and this time it’s for a very good reason. In CW it’s sometimes hard to express a close equivalent to e.g. an English-language tenseless verb (like ‘taking’ here). The Jargon has a preference to avoid prepositions (like kopa here), as well, in such settings. More common is for a speaker to use a descriptive, tensed verb phrase, e.g. …wáwa háyú qʰáta ɬaska ískam… ‘…say a lot (about) how they’ll take…’

tomtom [12] tchako ayo sick is a bit odd because expressions of people’s feelings are usually in the possessive. We’d normally expect ‘our’ hearts to be overtly signaled, with nsayka.

tchako ayo [13] sick is a pretty early occurrence of a typical northern-dialect trait, where the pre-existing verb prefixes hayas- ‘very’ and hayu- ‘situation viewed as being in progress’ went through the 1858 bottleneck of simplification — that is, in being brought from the southern dialect up north, they got sort of confused with each other. Even in the Kamloops-area letters and Kamloops Wawa, towards 1900, we still see this indeterminacy sometimes.

mash [14] tchikomen (‘put/send/throw money’) is a good old expression for ‘paying money’ for something.

poos lolo laplanche [15] kanawe iktas is another example of the very northern tendency of omitting a word for ‘and’ when you’re talking about multiple instances of a single kind of thing. I speculate that this has some relation to the northern love of linking clauses together with pi ‘and’, more often than the southern dialect does. A result is that pi in the north tends to make it sound like you’re about to move on to a somewhat different thought, which would be really different from just listing a sequence of nouns! Not tangentially, let me point out that First Nations people traditionally carried the boards of their big houses by canoe from one season’s location to another’s. So it’s remarkable to see that the colonial government had been trying to tax this traffic in the people’s own property!

tlaska tsok [16] nsika ankate oldman — Here’s an alternate word order for possessives that we find more in the north than in the southern dialect: ‘their river, our oldtime elders’. (Preferred southern style would be nsayka ánqati úlman ɬaska tsə́qw.)

More background:

Here is some additional material from the “Colonial Despatches” site about the above Jargon petition’s authorship and contents. My underlining emphasis shows how this is a good check on our translation above. This is a cover letter from BC governor Frederick Seymour to the Colonial Secretary (the Earl of Carnarvon), and some further office notes.

Despatch to London
Seymour, Frederick to Carnarvon, Earl 19 February 1867, CO 60:27, no. 3710, 237.
No. 33

19th February 1867

My Lord,

I beg leave to lay before you a paper which may not be without interest to Your Lordship. It is a genuine Petition written by an Indian boy and signed by seventy Chiefs representing so many villages. The Chinook is an exact translation of each English sentence which precedes it. I think it a very satisfactory state of things when the Aborigines who so vastly outnumber us in this Colony where no troops are stationed, thus adopt the mode of petitioning instead of redressing their real of [or] imaginary grievances by force.

2. The Indian Chiefs came down from Lytton on the North, Douglas on the west, the whole of the Lower Fraser in our proximity, and even from the Land of the Euclatows on the Coast, to see me and protest against certain action proposed to be taken by some Members of the Legislative Council. The Natives petition, first,
That the Law which prohibits the sale of spirituous liquors liquors in their villages be not repealed. I replied that the Liquor Law of the Mainland should not only be maintained here but extended over Vancouver Island.
Secondly, the Indians pray that their Reserves be not interfered with. A Resolution requesting me to curtail such Reserves having passed the Council. A few of these Reserves are doubtless too large, but they shall not be reduced without my personal inspection. I replied merely, according to their own mode of expression, that “My heart was as good to the Indian as to the white man.”

Thirdly, they beg that the heavy duty on their canoes navigating the Fraser be abolished. I told them I had already proposed to the Gentlemen there (pointing to the Council Room) to relieve them from this payment great as is our financial embarrassment the charging the Natives for the navigation of our great river struck me as manifestly unjust.

3. All the Chiefs who set their Mark to the Petition and many others assembled on the lawn of Government House. I was received with loud cheers which were repeated at the end of my statement.

4. I wish I could report matters, as regards the Indian Population to be as satisfactory on Vancouver Island as on the Mainland. The Council is at present, however, engaged in extending the Laws of British Columbia affecting the Natives over the whole Colony.

I have the honor to be,
My Lord,
Your most obedient
humble Servant
Frederick Seymour

Minutes by CO staff
Mr Elliot
Acke—with satisfaction—the rect of this Petition & of the ansr returned to it by the Governor.
ABd 15 Apl
TFE 15/4
CBA 16/4
B&C 17/4
Documents enclosed with the main document (not transcribed)
Petition regarding the issues as per despatch, written in both English and Chinook, signed with the mark of seventy Indian chiefs.
Other documents included in the file
Draft reply, Buckingham to Seymour, No. 21, 2 May 1867 acknowledging receipt of Seymour’s despatch with satisfaction for the petition of the Indigenous Chiefs and Seymour’s response.

What do you think?
Kata maika tumtum?