“Hyas Tyee Tumwater” isn’t traditional: Baseless ideas about CW

Too often, someone publishes an offhand remark, and it gets cited as fact ever after…

a brief history

(Image credit: Family Search)

I first saw this one Chinook Jargon phrase on page 27 of  “A Brief History of Oregon City and West Linn” (no author, no location: Crown Zellerbach Corporation, 1941) —

…today thousands of Oregon homes, factories and business houses are served by power from the famous Indian “Hyas Tyee Tumwater“.

That phrasing makes it sound like “hey, everyone knows good ol’ Hyas Tyee Tumwater“. I can imagine it being a seductive notion for tribal members and others of good will, being a Native name attributed to a location in Grand Ronde traditional territory.

But I’ve never heard of this name for Willamette Falls. I only knew the name tə́mwáta ‘the waterfall’ for it.

The Jargon expression sounds like ‘big chief waterfall’. Ugh. That reeks of sentimenal Settlers playing Indian with the history of an important early Oregon town.

Doing my due diligence, I researched around to find earlier occurrences of the phrase. Nothing at all turned up in local Oregon newspapers — making me even more suspicious.

The phrase is in fact extremely rare in the written record.


(Image credit: AbeBooks)

It appears to date to Eva Emery Dye’s romanticized, heckuva-titled,  “The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark” (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Company, 1902), page 268:

the conquest

This is one of those formerly common books that popularize history by concocting dialog to put into the mouths of figures from the past. These, at least for research purposes, frustrate me. (As a matter of style, too, I dislike their approach.)

But worse yet is when these books get quoted as reliable authorities, by later folks doing research! Can you say “echo chamber”?

Bonus fact:

This is an illustration of the perils of ideas that sound attractive, but lack evidence. There have been many such baseless ideas attached to Chinuk Wawa:

  • That CW is an old pre-European trade language.
  • That all CW is a creole language, since one dialect of it evolved from a pidgin to a creole.
    (A certain colonized mentality seems necessary to believe this — it seems to be a belief that “creole languages are more highly developed/are better/are more “real” than pidgin languages.” That’s a dangerous game to get into; there are plenty of people who, in turn, feel smugly sure that creoles are “inferior” to genetically descended languages such as English and French.)
  • That CW was invented by The Hudsons Bay Company.
  • That CW ɬax̣áyam (klahowya) comes from ‘Clark/Clerk, how are you?’, or from Hebrew l’chaim!
  • That CW has no grammar of its own — nor even a phonological system.
  • That CW is “the Indian” language.

The bright side is this, as I see it: if you take the trouble to familiarize yourself with, and think your way through, these urban legends and linguistic myths about Chinook Jargon, you come out with a secure, fact-based, deep understanding of this language.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?