1881: Jack’s Chinuk Wawa letter


Quileute tribal members (image credit: Peninsula Daily News)

Jack’s letter, 1881

as published by Dr. Barbara P. Harris in 1984

revisited by David Douglas Robertson PhD & the Snass Sessions class on August 14, 2021

Quileute,1 W[ashington].T[erritory]. Feb. 7, 18812

Mr Smis
Mr. Smith:

     Nika tenas wake3 tenas sick.4
     My kid isn’t (even) a bit sick.
yaka skookum.
(S)he’s healthy.
pe nika kloochman halo tenas sick.
And my wife isn’t a bit sick.
yaka skookum.
She’s healthy.
chee nika copet potlatch5 kopa nika tillicums.6
I’ve just recently stopped giving things to my relatives.
moxt moon alta, nika kwansome7 potlatch kopa nika tillicums.
For two months now, I’ve kept on giving things to my people.
pe kwansome* yaka8 hehe,
And they keep on enjoying themselves,
kwansome yaka halo ickta mamook9
they keep doing nothing.
kopet hehe pe klokwolly.10
It’s just having fun and Wolf Dancing.
pe nika kwansome kloshe nanitch kopa nika tillicums pe konaway siwash.
And I’ve kept on taking care of my relatives and all the Natives.
kwansome nika potlatch hyiu muckamuck
I’m always giving out lots of food
pe halo lolo*/
tolo* ickt bit.11
and not earning a dime (from it).
nika kloshe nanich kopa Wesley spose12 yaka chaco kopa
I’ll take care of Wesley when he comes to Quileute.
pe alka spose mika chako kopa Quileute
And later when you come to Quileute
nika kloshe nanich kopa mika
I’ll take care of you
pe lolo13 mika kopa kloshe illahe.14
and take you to some good locations.
spose Wesley klap kopa Quileute
When Wesley arrives at Quileute
nika konamoxt kopa yaka15 mamook tsum kopa16 konaway siwash.
I and he together will do some writing for all of the Natives.
pe nika tenas sick alta,
And I’m a bit sick now,
moxt sun nika halo get up. =
for two days I haven’t gotten up. =
tenas alka klonas ickt moon pe sitkum, nika klatawa kopa Queets17 pe Ho18
After a while, maybe a month and half, I’ll go to Queets and Hoh
iskum kopa siwash19
to choose from the Natives
lolo kopa Quileute
to bring to Quileute
mamook sealskin.20
to go seal hunting.

     pe nika Ow Henry yaka kloshe, halo tenas sick.
     And my brother Henry is well, not a bit sick.
pe nika mama yaka kloshe
And my mother is well
pe kwansome mitlight kopa nika house.
and still staying at my house.
pe John yaka kwansome koshe* nanich kopa nika
And John is still looking out for me
pe potlatch pire stick.

and supplying firewood.

     Howeattle yaka kwansome ickt tumtum21 kopa nika
     Howeattle is still of one mind with me(,)
kwansome kunamoxt kopa nika
always with me
spose ickta mamook.22
when anything is the matter.
nika tikegh spose mika potlatch kopa nika tenas delate kloshe whistle.23
I want for you to give my kid a really good whistle.
Wake kakwa24 mitlight kopa okoke makoke house.

There’s nothing like that at this store.

     Klahowiam Mr Smis
     Goodbye Mr. Smith

     Kloshe mash haleuiman25 tsum26 kopa mika*/nika*27
     Please send other letters to me
nika kakwa kwansome mika tillicum28
I am as always your friend



1 Quileute is surely the village still known as La Push from the CW word labúsh ‘mouth’ (of the Quileute River).

2 The dateline is in English, typical for Chinuk Wawa letters. There were no established terms for the months, for example, within CW.

3 The more southern dialect-style wake ‘not’ alternates freely with the more northern-stylehalo ‘not’, even in the exact same sentence structure, as we see in Jack’s comments on his kid and his wife.

4 Indigenous letter writers in northern-dialect areas customarily begin with a report on the health of people where they are located.
The implication of tenas sick ‘a bit sick; under the weather’, in the negative, is ‘not even a bit sick; not sick at all’.
Another indicator of English-language influence on Jack’s CW is his consistent placement of subjects first in sentences, even when they’re intransitive expressions like ‘to not be sick’, where CW likes to place the subject after the predicate.

5 Copet potlatch could mean ‘stopped giving’ or ‘finished potlatching’, etc. Here the mention of 2 months’ duration tilts me toward thinking it’s generally ‘giving’ rather than a potlatch, which I understood usually lasts only several days.

6 Jack’s Chinuk Wawa has further indications of English-language influence, beyond his use of spellings from published dictionaries marketed to Americans. One such sign is the English noun-plural suffix -s added to CW tillicum.

7 Kwansome ‘always’ is extremely often used as ‘still’ or ‘to keep on doing/being…’

8 In common with other fluent speakers, Jack uses yaka as ‘they’, as well as for ‘(s)he’.

9 Also fluent CW is Jack’s placement of quantifier words like halo ickta ‘nothing’ up front in the sentence.

10 Klokwolly is the winter Wolf Dance religion, which spread from Vancouver Island southwards among Washington coast First Nations.

11 There is mild uncertainty over which word was written here, but lolo ‘carry; bring’ would be odd compared with tolo ‘earn, gain, win’. Tolo is the normal verb for ‘earning’ money.

12 Spose could mean ‘if’ or ‘when’, but the context of letter writing implies an expected event, not a hypothetical one.

13 Lolo here is surely the intended verb, meaning ‘to bring, lead, guide’ someone.

14 Kloshe illahee ‘good place’ could alternatively be the idiom for ‘a valley, a meadow, a farm’, which seems less likely. Both Wesley and Mr. Smith were [–editing on Nov. 14, 2021 to say I now think these were either (A) the same person (!), or that (B) “Wesley” was a nickname of AW’s adopted son John Henry Leppell. But that boy was apparently born in 1905, making only (A) possible, if weird.–] White employees of the US government Indian service, and probably in need of a location to build a house, or at least to be shown around Quileute country. (Alanson Wesley Smith was, at the time of Jack’s letter, just about to come to La Push to start a Native school.)

15 Konamoxt kopa yaka ‘together with him’ is a synonym for konamoxt yaka ‘(together) with him’.

16 The preposition kopa has many meanings. I feel ‘for’ is the most plausible one here. Otherwise, Jack would be saying something like ‘writing to the Natives’, but we know that literacy was extremely rare in these communities in 1881. It was common for Pacific Northwest Indigenous people to employ literate volunteers to convey their thoughts to Settler authorities, whether in Chinuk Wawa or in English.

17 Queets is a Quinault Salish community south of La Push.

18 Ho is the Quileute-speaking Hoh tribe at the mouth of the Hoh River, south of La Push.

19 Iskum kopa Siwash is the one expression in this letter that seems truly odd or vague to me. This is due to the inclusion of a preposition. Without it, iskum Siwash would clearly mean ‘fetch some Natives; choose some Natives’. With it, the sentence sounds something like ‘choose among the Natives, pick out from Natives’.

20 Mamook sealskin is a marvelous find for us. It backs up my separate finding that the usual word for ‘seals’ in the northern dialect is a newer loan from English, not the older southern ulx̣ayu.
It illustrates the Chinuk Wawa grammatical rule that mamuk ‘do’ plus a word for a natural resource = ‘harvesting/gathering’ that resource.
And it suggests to us that Jack was apparently one of the many Indigenous sealing-ship owners on the coast in the late 1800s.

21 Ickt tumtum is a good CW expression to know for ‘agree’ or ‘think alike’. (But moxt tumtum ‘2 minds’ would be ‘to doubt’!)

22 Spose ickta mamook (literally ‘if anything doing’) strikes me as being related to ickta mamook ‘why?; what’s the matter?’

23 Whistle is a new English loan.

24 Wake kakwa ‘no such’ is Jack’s synonym for the more common halo kakwa ‘nothing such, nothing like that’.

25 Haleuiman ‘another; different’ is the typical coastal northern-dialect version of x̣lúyma.

26 Tsum ‘writing’ is a synonym of pipa in reference to a ‘letter’ sent by mail.

27 Mika* / nika* – it’s virtually certain that nika ‘me’, not mika ‘you’, is intended in this request to send more letters!

28 Additional English-language influence is obvious in this standard American closing salutation.

Bonus fact: 

I notice that Jack uses klahowiam (ɬax̣áyam) only for ‘goodbye’, as I’ve also found to be usual in Native people’s writing elsewhere in this same northern-dialect area. I reckon this doesn’t mean they didn’t also use for ‘hello’, as we have other evidence that they did use it for spoken greetings. The main factor at play in this may simply be that Native writers used other formulaic salutations in their letters, influenced by Settlers’ literate culture. For example, Indigenous letters often start with phrases like ‘My good friend, I want to talk to you.’

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm? What do you think?