1786: Alexander Walker on the PNW coast (part 1 of 2)

For another early-contact account of “Nootka” (and south-central Alaska), we have a superb edition of…

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(Image credit: Biblio.com)

Robin Fisher & J.M. Bumsted (eds.), “An Account of a Voyage to the North West Coast of America in 1785 & 1786, by Alexander Walker” (Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1982).

This book is diligently footnoted and appendixed; it’s a marvelous research tool, as well as a really good read.

Although I recently put up a post calling Mociño’s narrative of a 1792 stay in Nuuchahnulth territory the first clear evidence of a “Nootka pidgin” / “Nootka Jargon”, I see lots of evidence in Walker’s writing that such a contact language was already in use in 1786.

There are so many indications of misunderstandings, though, and of hand gestures (not sign language) being used, that I think this pidgin was still quite new and not yet very stabilized into a set of agreed-on meanings.

Have a look at Part 1 of my paste-up of the passages having to do with intercultural communication in this book…We do find several instances of a somewhat consistent syntactic order in use in this pidginized Nuuchahnulth.


June 26, 1786 — Arrival at “Hope Bay” on Vancouver Island. “They were never off their guard. As they came nearer, the Orator stood up and vociferated as fast almost as he could utter — Wakosh! Wakosh! friend! friend! or a declaration of friendship…these People occasionally made other harangues, in which they seemed to exhort us strongly to furnish them with Iron…they were apprehensive, that we intended to leave them, and entreated us to stay both by words and gestures…We answered their invitatations with all the marks of friendship in our power, and endeavoured to make them understand, by frequently repeating the word Nootka, that we intended going thither.” [DDR — wakosh is more like ‘bravo!’ or ‘hurray!’; Nootka is thought to actually be a Nuuchahnulth verb ‘go around!’] 

June 27 — “…when we were heaving up the Anchor, they gathered round the bows, and looked with much astonishment. They doubtless thought it an enormous bulk of Wealth, – They frequently with a tone of surprise repeated the word “Sikémailé” – “Iron,” probably expressing their astonishment, that it should be all Iron…They laughed heartily, passed their jokes on us with great freedom, and gave us to understand, that for Iron, we might have their Wives, (or Women) explaining their meaning by many indecent actions.” These people have an appreciable amount of European trade goods already, even offering beads in trade to the mariners “in derision”. [Sikémailé eventually became Chinuk Wawa chíkʰəmin ‘iron; metal; money’.]

June 28 — “We here saw two jolly Wenches paddling in a Canoe, who offered by some significant gestures to be very kind, if we would favour them with some Iron.”

July 2 — “As we were looking at some stones and shells which we found on the beach, they snatched them hastily from us, and said in a savage manner, that we ought to purchase those things before we took them.They even appeared angry, that we should dare to touch any thing in their Country, unless we had procured a previous right to it by purchase…Some of them [houses] were fifteen foot high, and in one we counted no less than eight Images which they called Klumma. These are monstrous wooden representations of fictitious beings about twice the size of a stout Man.”

July 7 — “…a small House was purchased for an Adze and Saw…several People, who lived in it, refused to go out, alleging that it was their Property, and that he, with whom we had made the bargain, had very freely sold what was not his. An altercation ensuing, the Person who had received the goods, was sent for. He soon convinced us, that the present Possessors were in the wrong, and that nothing belonged to them, but a few planks…the entertainment…consisted dancing and singing…little more than a constant repetition of the words, “Ahyeena ha, ha, ha! Weeneena ho, ho, ho!” delivered in a plaintive manner, after which they repeated in a tender strain, “allah, ah, allay…The frequent use of the word “weena or weenena,” which signifies strangers, makes it likely that the Natives by this performance meant to congratulate us on our arrival.” [The song lyrics mostly appear to be “vocables” rather than words, but Walker may be right about the word for ‘visitors / strangers’.] 

July 9 — “The Natives told us, that they frequently visit this place: but as it yields no fish, it is probable, that they never make it their residence.”

July 11 — “We told them whither we were going, and they advised us not to proceed farther; as they had just come from the same pursuit, and had been able to procure nothing, but a few small pieces of Fur. At that time we gave little credit to what they said, but afterwards we had every reason to believe, that they had spoken the truth.”

July 14 — “They were amusing themselves by shooting arrows, and throwing stones at a Mark…They told us, that in this manner they played for Arrows, Copper, and other valuable Articles.”

July 14-19 (page 58) — “One would take up the Fur, and measuring it by extending his arms, endeavour to make us sensible how large it was; another would smooth it down with his hand, and expatiate on the fineness and colour of the Fur; while on every hand the cry was, “asko, asko, sikemailé, klookh, klookh, quotluk;” much Copper, Good, Good, Otters Skin.” [We see this pattern of a modifying word preceding the noun really often in pidginized Nuuchahnulth.]

July 22 — A Native thief is taken prisoner by the mariners. “Both the Chiefs…came into our Boat…On our way to the Vessel they endeavoured to persuade us, that we had seized on a wrong Person, but we gave little credit to this story…[after seeing how scared the captive was] it was now thought, that he had been sufficiently punished by the fright he had received. When this was declared to the Chiefs, the Sullenness of their aspects cleared up…Kurrighum [Callicum] professed unlimited confidence in us, and boasted much of his own courage, while he derided the fears of his Countrymen. When we asked him, why they abandoned their Houses, he answered, “Pohtkleetl tootsma,” the Women are afraid. When we spoke of Mokquilla [Maquinna], he said, that he was “ayakhtl,” trembling with fear. [Pohtkleetl tootsma is literally ‘afraid woman’, a subject-final word order that we often see in pidgnized Nuuchahnulth. I am interested in determining whether this syntactic order is more characteristic of intransitive than transitive expressions, as it came to be in Chinuk Wawa.]

July 23 — “We were followed to this place [Ship Cove] by two Men in a Canoe, who told us, that a long time ago two large Vessels, “asko chepats,” had been there, and that they had received much Iron from them…By this time our Trade had declined, and we were now informed by the Natives, that they had furnished us with all the Sea Otter Skins, they could procure that Season…When Mr. S[trange]. first undertook this Voyage, he proposed to leave some Person at Nootka, who, by remaining among the Natives, might in the absence of the Vessels cultivate their Friendship, and learn their language. It being now determined to leave this place, the Person pitched upon t stay behind was John McKoy [McKay], who formerly had been a Surgeons Mate in the Navy, and now officiated on board the Experiment in a Medical capacity…The measure was therefore proposed to Kurrighum and Mokquilla, and having mentioned the advantages they would derive from McKoy’s residing among them, found that they were highly pleased, and willing to give every assistance.” [Asko chepats again uses the modifier-noun word order.]

July 24 — “On his own side he [Maquinna] mentioned a long string of Male relations, whose business it was to serve him, and who at this time were abroad hunting for him. Enumerating every thing eseemed valuable at Nootka Arrows, Canoes, Iron, Copper, Skins, he asserted that in all these he was Richer than Kurrighum. After making various attempts to convince Mr. S. of his dignity, and having been much puzzled to give him a sufficient idea of Kurrighums inferiority, at last he held one finger far above an other, and told us with great exultation, that the uppermost was Mokquilla and the other Kurrighum…Kurrighums conduct confirmed what Mokquilla had said: when informed of it he contented himself with saying, that Mokquilla and he were, “sowak,” one, and placing two of his fingeres parallel, intimated that they were equal…”

July 25 — “When this valuable present was exposed, Mokquilla seemed to be doubtful, whether so much wealth could be designed for him, and it required several assurances fully to convince him. Being told that it was “haweelkh nahie,” something out of friendship for which no return was expected, he fixed his Eyes stedfastly on Mr. S. He remained silent for some time in this posture, but at length recovering himself, he declared his gratitude as well as his language would allow, yet he appeared to feel more than he could express. He was particularly vexed, that he had nothin to give in return, but promised that, till we came back, all his care should be to provide himself with furs. His attendants were also very profuse in their promises. The Women and Children, according to their usual custom, bawled altogether, “haweelkh, haweelkh!” we are friends, we are friends! for their language contains no laboured expressions of gratitude. It was now explained to Mokquilla, that this present was only an earnest of what he should receive, provided he behaved well to Mr. McKay. Upon these assurances he embraced McKay, and swore to be for Ever his friend. He afterwards asked if he might barter our Gift with the Neighbouring Nations for Furs, that he might be enabled to lay in a greater supply for us. This he proposed with some diffidence, as if he had been afraid of offending us by selling the tokens of our Friendship. Our delicacy of sentiment was less than his. We encouraged him to part with every thing for Furs,and told him, that we would return with more Copper and Iron than his House would contain, and amply repay him. The compliments on both sides became hyperbolical, but I reallly believe that there was more truth in ours, than in his. ¶ The professions of good will to McKay were unbounded. Mokquilla said that he should sleep next to him and his Wife, but took care to add, that he would keep his Wife at a proper distance. He told him, that he would provide him with a Bed of the finest Fur, a Bears skin dress, and a War Cloak: and, as the strongest proof of his friendship, patting him on the shoulder, he undertook to feed him on Fish, till he became as fat as Klumma...He also said that he would give McKay a Wife…we were preparing to return on board without going near Kurrighums House, but Mokquilla desired us to visit him, saying, that Kurrighum and he were very good friends…Kurrighum made a speech to Mr. S. which none of us understood…” [This haweelkh nahie might again be a modifier+noun sequence, but haweelkh ought to mean ‘chief’ in my understanding of Nuuchahnulth, so that the crowd repeating this word was expressing honour rather than friendship. Note that it was normally a Native chief who did the trading with visitors in Nuuchahnulth country. See the following excerpt, among others.] 

July 26 — McKay is brought ashore along with some goats and seeds for a garden. “We explained to them the use of the Vegetables, and they seemed to comprehend our meaning. In the management of the Goats and feeds, they promised to be guided solely by McKay…This [the locals’ belief that McKay’s stay might help them militarily] was in some measure made evident, by the earnest manner, in which Mokquilla solicited us to leave Arms with McKay…they asked Mr. S. for a red Coat, which he wore, for they said, that the very sight of such a dress would terrify all their Enemies…Even the Children learned to lisp his name, and called out as we passed “McKoy haweelkh! McKoy haweelkh!,” McKoy is our friend! or we are McKoy’s friend!”

Undated (page 82) — Walker is sold two human hands. “Having purchased them, I enquired if they were for eating; she readily answered in the affirmative, but observing me to be in doubt, she put one of the hands into her Mouth, and tore part of the palm to pieces with her teeth…They would testify their pleasure by stroking their bellies, and licking their lips; exclaiming “klookh, klookh,” “good, good.”…I have seen Mokquilla, after we had been expressing our detestation in the strongest manner, appear for a few minutes to agree with us, saying, as we told him, that it was bad food, a wicked custom, and the like, but having in this way repeated all our arguments, he would laugh aloud, and thrust the hand into his Mouth.”

Page 86 — “…when we asked those, who pretended to have two [wives], where the other was, we were constantly answered, that she had gone to some other place…Even at Nootka the Men in their Actions show no sense of decency: they do in public those things, which modesty forbids us to mention, and talk of the commerce between the sexes with a licentious freedom. The conduct of the Women is widely different.”

Pages 87-88 — “We used many arguments to induce them to lay aside this custom. [Infant head flattening.] Some by bribes were prevailed upon to take off the Bandages, but next Day, when we returned, we found the children swaddled up as usual.”

Page 88 — “They are rather a serious and taciturn People, and it is extremely difficult to obtain any information from them. They have a great aversion to controversy, and deliver their opinion as near as possible, to what they conceive to be the sentiments of those who address them; by which means in all our enquiries we could with difficulty arrive at the truth. I always found the Women and Children the most communicative. They were also the most sincere, and their information was the most to be depended upon. They readily comprehended our meaning, and for the most part were willing to explain any thing to us, but it was very difficult to engage the Men to be so attentive. They all knew, that by means of writing, which they called painting, that we could convey our Ideas to one another, and they used frequently to make us write down a number of words, and then repeat them, which generally excited some merriment as well as admiration.”

In our second installment: more anecdotes, and a neat vocabulary…

What do you think? kata maika tumtum?