Well-intentioned, but foolish, lesson plans

Can you name any language that schoolkids can be expected to translate a treaty into, with no prior exposure?

lost in translation

Today I’m having a look at a “curriculum packet” from the respected Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, titled “A History of Treaties and Reservations on the Olympic Peninsula, 1855-1898“. 

It’s a good resource for schoolteachers — but one activity in it makes me cringe. Here it is: 

Lost in Translation

Some of the largest criticisms of the treaty negotiations were that there were insurmountable communications barriers that made it impossible for the Indians and whites to understand each other. Although there were many avenues for misunderstanding, two of the most obvious were, first, the inability of the treaty negotiators to speak a common language, and, second, the inclusion of references and ideas that would have had no meaning for the Native Americans in Washington Territory.


Clause by clause

One of the big issues with the way Stevens conducted the treaty negotiations was that the intricate and complex discussions were carried out almost exclusively in Chinook Jargon, a trade-based, composite language with a total vocabulary around 500 words. Many scholars and modern observers recognize, as Daniel Boxberger wrote in 1979, that the Chinook Jargon “was inadequate to express precisely the legal effects of the treaties, although the general meaning of the treaty language could be explained.” Further, he notes that “Many of those present, however, did not understand Chinook jargon.” Further complicating the picture is that oftentimes (the Makah being a notable exception) the negotiations involved several tribes of Indians, each of which spoke a different language. The end result is that it is not clear how well the two sides understood each other.  This exercise helps students explore the difficulties this presented.

In the records from the Makah treaty negotiations, it was noted that, “The treaty was then read and interpreted and explained, clause by clause.” After explaining the background to the students, place them into small groups and tell them that they are going to join the treaty commission as translators, supplying them with copies of the Treaty with the Makah, 1855 and the Chinook Dictionary. Assign each group a short passage from the treaty to translate into Chinook Jargon (you may find that a single, well-chosen sentence will get the point across effectively). Explain that they may find words that don’t translate exactly. Ask them to be creative and find words that make logical substitutes. For example, they will not find the word “law” in the dictionary, but they may want to consider using “truth,” “writing,” or “to order.” Give them five or 10 minutes and then check in. Ask them to read aloud a verbatim transcription of their Chinook translation rendered in English then ask other students to explain what they think was the intent of the original passage. Ask the group to read out the original passage. Did the translation convey the correct ideas? Would the Makah have really understood what they were agreeing to? What does this say about the treaty-making process?

Note: A member of the treaty commission who was also an ethnologist compiled The Chinook Dictionary. He included several terms—such as “breasts” and “testicles” that might be inappropriate for the classroom. For that reason a slightly abridged copy of the dictionary is included. (See Chinook Dictionary Abridged.)

Suggested passages for translation:

  • Article 3

  • Article 8

  • Article 11 (first sentence)

  • Article 12

  • Article 13

  • Article 14


So, this is asking schoolkids to do the work of a professional translator.

Do you see any potential problems with that? Write me a 250-word essay outlining the pro’s and con’s 😀

Seriously, I can understand how this lesson plan originated. This comes back to the persistent folklore that Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa) wasn’t a real language, which we’ve disproven over and over in recent decades of linguistic scholarship.

That folklore is explainable as a misinterpretation of a huge genuine issue, which was that

  1. CJ was not spoken by the majority of Indigenous people involved in the 1855 Stevens Treaties in the Pacific Northwest,
  2. It had not yet had the chance to adapt fully to Euro-American cultural concepts such as the US legal system, and likewise,
  3. Settlers typically did not avail themselves of the useful tool of CJ to gain a greater understanding of tribal cultural values.

As a result, Native folks could not possibly have grasped the implications of whatever the Whites were telling them in those treaty sessions, nor could they adequately convey their own concerns. There wasn’t much real negotiation that happened in those sessions.

Even though I can explain the thread of thinking behind the “hey kids, translate this treaty” assignment, that doesn’t make it okay.

And that’s because it would be an equally ignorant and invalid exercise, no matter what language it used. Do you imagine anyone could get a realistic notion of diplomatic translation by being told to use a dictionary of some language they’d never spoken? (Seriously, dude, not even a grammar book??) 

Then there are the Chinuk Wawa-specific problems with such an assignment. I’ve often shown that the CW dictionaries of the 1800s had very good reasons to leave out most words of “the Jargon” that originated in English — and they did leave ’em out. So, while the assignment accurately says you won’t find a word for ‘law’ in the dictionary, there is in fact a solidly documented word for it, lá — that is, the English word. The fact that it’s a non-Indigenous word in its origin does not mean that it wasn’t understood by Native people, which would be a harmful stereotype in my view. Indigenous and Settler societies alike operate by codes of rules, and historically were able to talk about them in Jargon. 

Another problematic aspect of the assignment is its implicit assumption that the professional, highly qualified Chinook Jargon translators, and their colleagues, at the Stevens Treaty sessions were uniformly ethical. That’s very doubtful. Oral history evidence consistently shows that the Indigenous people tended to have quite a different understanding of what was being agreed to, compared with what you’ll see written on paper in what Settler society privileges as the legally binding version. Many of their misunderstandings appear due to various details not having been made clear; most could have been cleared up via the medium of CJ, but nobody did so. 

I’ve been reading the 1853 diaries of George B. McClellan, who was surveying a potential railroad route at the time when territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens was preparing to conduct his treaty meetings with the tribes. (A member of his crew was George Gibbs, the still-respected Chinook Jargon expert who went on to interpret for Stevens.) McClellan’s personal observations make clear both that the tribes among whom a good knowledge of Jargon was widespread by that time had excellent levels of understanding with the Whites, whereas with other tribes there were enormous gulfs of misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the Native nations having high familiarity with Jargon were not those making treaties with the USA! I’ll be writing more about those diaries in this space soon. 

What do you think?