siʔaɬ (Chief Seattle’s) speeches to back-translate: Part 1 of 3

wəx̣t hayu masi kʰapa ukuk lalang-tayi Peter Bakker, yaka munk-kəmtəks nayka qʰa pus nanich ixt ɬush skul-pipa…


Dedication of Chief Seattle statue, 1912 (image credit: History Net)

The Many Speeches of Seathl: The Manipulation of the Record on behalf of Religious, Political and Environmental Causes” by Eli Gifford is an MA thesis in history at Sonoma State University, California, defended in 1998. 

Page 62 notes that there are 3 known recorded speeches by siʔaɬ (Chief Seattle). He did not speak Chinuk Wawa, but what’s quite interesting is that, from those three texts, we can reconstruct what some of his orations sounded like when translated from his native dxʷləšúcid (Lushootseed Salish) into CW, before then being put into English for Settler addressees. 

The earliest of these (1850) appears on pages 15-16, as put into the Jargon by a tribal member and remembered by “Mike” Simmons in his own English translation: 




My name is Sealt and this great swarm of people that you see are my people; they have come down here to celebrate the coming of the first run of good salmon. As the salmon are our chief food we always rejoice to see them coming early and in abundance, for this insures [sic] us a plentiful quantity of food for the coming winter. This is the reason our hearts are glad today, and so you do not want to take this wild demonstration as warlike. It is meant in the nature of a salute in imitation of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s salute to their chiefs when they arrive at Victoria. I am glad to have you come to our country, for we Indians know but little and you Boston and King George men know how to do every thing [sic]. We want your blankets, your guns, axes, clothing, tobacco, and all other things you make. We need all these things that you make, as we do not know how to make them, and so we welcome you to our country to make flour, sugar and other things that we can trade for. We wonder why the Boston men should wander so far away from their home and come among so many Indians. Why are you not afraid?

Only a few words of actual Chinook Jargon appear in this brief speech, bolded by me. These show that the Native people knew the difference between the two main nationalities of newcomers, but did not yet have a single term for ‘White people’.

We also see an implied reference to the known fact that the Indigenous folks had a habit of “shopping around” between HBC Forts Nisqually, Victoria, and Langley, which gave them a somewhat substantial exposure to the Euro-Americans. 

This whole speech bears many further clear traces of CJ, albeit highly processed, as was customary by Settlers, into a more literary style in English. (White folks don’t really believe in writing as you speak!) This tends to make “back-translation” to Chinook more challenging, but it can be an enjoyable nut to crack. Some of the more obvious points are that the trade products mentioned all had well-established Jargon names in 1850 — putting it another way, this list of trade products itself suggests a Jargon-speaking environment. 

One interesting detail is in what I take as a probable slip-up, “we welcome you to our country to make flour, sugar, and other things that we can trade for.” I’d bet (A) that Simmons was influenced by the occurrence of ‘make’ just previously, (B) that he was remembering (and/or the Native translator said) the verb mákuk ‘to sell, trade, etc.’, but that Simmons/translator blended that with the near-homonym mámuk ‘to make’, or (C) that both of these. Confusion of the two words was a pretty frequent lapse among pidgin CW speakers, that is, those who didn’t grow up speaking Jargon every single day. 

Okay now, does one of you want to do the back-translating before I get to it? 🙌

Bonus facts:

The “mere boy” Benjamin Franklin Shaw was born in 1829, so he was at least 20 years old. His family brought him to the Champoeg area in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1844, meaning he already had more than half a decade’s exposure to a heavily Chinuk Wawa-using enviroment. At ages 25-26, an old hand by anyone’s standards on the frontier, he was one of the main CW interpreters for Washington Territory Governor, Isaac Ingalls Stevens’, blitz of treaty-signing sessions with Native nations of the far Pacific Northwest. 

Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) was the first permanent Settler on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Washington Territory; he was also the elected Colonel of a territorial volunteer militia, and served in the region’s Indian wars of 1855-1856. He’s often cited in modern histories for his having been beheaded in a revenge killing against US military forces by Tsaagweidí (Killerwhale Clan) Lingít (Tlingit) people from Ḵéex̱ʼ (Kake, Alaska), led by a woman warrior. The incident, preserved in that tribe’s oral history, that prompted the Alaskans’ retaliatory raid was the 1856 bombardment by the USS Massachusetts that killed 27 Ḵéex̱ʼ people visiting the nəxʷsƛ̓áy’əŋ (Klallams) at Port Gamble, Washington. In the setting of the above speech by siʔał, Ebey was presumably in the midst of his search for a good place to homestead. 

In closing, I want to note that siʔał doesn’t talk flowery in the above Chinuk Wawa version of his speech. I bet he didn’t talk real flowery in his original Lushootseed either. When you find a Native speaker’s words phrased as great English poetry, like “man belongs to the Earth“, beware…

What do you think?
qʰata mayka təmtəm?