“Coquelle Thompson, Athabaskan Witness”

From the unusually fine biography of someone whose life spanned from early contact times past World War 2 (circa 1848-1946), we learn some valuable Chinuk Wawa information.


(Image credit: University of Oklahoma Press)

I’m referring to the excellent book titled “Coquelle Thompson, Athabaskan Witness: A Cultural Biography” by Lionel Youst & William Seaburg (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

For most of his life, Coquelle Thompson heard and used Chinook Jargon and English as well as his native Coquelle Athabaskan/Dene language of southwest Oregon. We have at least one traditional story told by him in highly fluent Jargon, published in 1936 by folklorist-anthropogist Melville Jacobs.

Page 22 — “Coquelle referred to the Miluk people near the mouth of the Coquille as the “Saltchuck Indian,” “saltchuck” being Chinook Jargon for “the ocean.” “The saltchuck Indians were mean,” he said, adding that they “were never good friends of the inland Indians.”

DDR note — The distinction between saltchuck (sáltsəqw ‘ocean’, i.e. coastal) tribes and stick (stík ‘forest’, i.e. inland) tribes is historically widespread in the Pacific Northwest from Oregon up to Alaska. Because contact with Whites began on the coast, various tribes such as the Nooksack Salish and the BC-Alaskan Dene (Athabaskans) were at first known to the newcomers only as “Stick Indians”.  

Recounting the killing of some White men in March 1854, Coquelle tells of the repercussions on page 34: ” ‘Oh, they were mad! They raised the dickens, “Who did it?” ‘At last,’ Coquelle said, they put ‘the rope around an old man, they said to him, “Do you know who killed those men?” He said in Jargon, “Coquille sal djik sawa” (mouth-of-the-Coquille River people).’ “

DDR note — that’s kʰókwəl* sáltsəqw sáwásh, ‘Coquille coastal Natives’, with < sawa > being perhaps a misspelling, or otherwise a sophisticated reanalysis of sáwásh ~ sáwás as the English -s plural of a supposed singular sáwá, which was then used in invariable form as are all Chinuk Wawa nouns. Dale McCreery has told me of a similar form heard in the Bella Coola, BC area, approximately sitkumsiwa ‘métis; “half-breed” ‘, from CW sitkum-sáwás(h), literally ‘half-Native’.)

On page 50, remembering a scene at Dayton, Oregon during the removal of the southwest Oregon Indians to the Grand Ronde area — on July 4, 1856, the Native people were startled by a loud booming, and ran to get weapons for what they took to be a war starting with Whites. (Sadly they already had some experience of that.) “Some men run in who talk Jargon. ‘Skookum Sunday, July.’ “

skúkum sándi, juláy* = ‘powerful/important Sunday/holiday, July’ in Chinuk Wawa, an early expression for the US independence holiday. 

Page 71 — young Coquelle meets an Applegate Athapaskan (Upper Rogue River) girl called Annetti, whose dad is known as “Nindanano, which in Jargon was translated as ‘Illahee Muck-a-muck,‘ Dirt Eater…’because he was mean, like a grizzly bear.’ “

Great Indigenous metaphor! That phrasing is of interest. I take a Chinuk Wawa íliʔi-mə́kʰmək as ‘dirt food’! To express ‘Dirt Eater’, my sense of CW grammar makes me expect yaka mə́kʰmək íliʔi ‘(s)he (who) eats dirt’. Maybe “Nindanano” is made of parts that respectively mean ‘dirt’ and then ‘eat’ in Dee-ni/Nuu-wee-ya/Tolowa Athabaskan?

On pages 93-94, referring to December 15, 1873, there was a meeting of the chiefs of the Siletz Tribes, and Coquelle Thompson’s uncle Charlie, Chief of the Coquilles, spoke his mind in Jargon. This was recorded for posterity in English by agent Joel Palmer. (So here we need some more back-translation into CW. It would be nice to dig up the original document in BIA archives or some such place, to have the full quoted text.) “Agents write to Washington (D.C.) for things and I ask them when will the answer come? They say soon, soon. My opinion is that letters are lost, and the Washington chief does not know about us…Do you see all these people? Are they like whites? Do whites live in cellars; in smokehouses; are they starved? Our agent says these Indians are becoming good. That is my opinion, too. I want you to tell the chief about us, and write the answer…Bad white men want our lands. I don’t want to give it up. The President gave it to us, and we want it…I want the land divided into farms like the whites so that we can learn to live like them. I want my agent to look close after us. I want him to come up and see us…I want the farmer at Upper Farm discontinued, so that more tools can be issued us.”

April of 1877, page 102 — Coquelle and three others take the new Warm House Dance religion (which I believe was a Jargon phrase, wám-háws tánis) on a tour of Oregon Coast settlements. At the site of Waldport, in Alsea territory, Coquelle told that “The preaching was in Jargon, ‘so we could understand each other.’ “

Page 106 — In April 1878, on his way back north to the reservation, Coquelle stays near the mouth of the Umpqua River. The book observes of this reservation time period, “The Chinook Jargon was the most common language with which the peoples of the Oregon coast still communicated, when they couldn’t communicate in English.” 

On page 128, in August 1878, Episcopal priest Richard W. Summers is visiting Siletz Reservation to buy Native cultural objects; “Lip-ma-shell of the Santiams” was going to show him “some ictas (relics), which he said he had and would sell to me.” 

A passing quotation on page 130 tells us that the Oregon legislature in 1866 made it “void” for Whites to marry anybody having “one-fourth or more Negro, Chinese or Kanaka blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood.” This crazy racist law remained in effect until 1951. Note the Chinuk Wawa/Hawai’ian word in bold, which was usual in local English.  

Talking about epidemics in his community in the 1890s, Coquelle describes a medicine man’s procedures on page 158. This passage sounds like Coquelle was thinking in Chinuk Wawa, so it would be easy to back-translate it to CW: “He blows, talks unintelligibly, talks and blows on a person. He blows water — just like ice it feels…[One medicine man named Warner talked to a sick man’s body:] Well, you people sit down too much. Fever and cool sickness sit on man too much. I’ll fix you fellows now…Too many ague sit on you, sitting on your eyes — all over. They’re little people, about as big as that” [holding out his forefinger].

There’s a passing mention in a footnote on page 168 of a Siletz reservation man called Tenas Charlie (‘Little Charlie’), a typical example of a very common type of Chinuk Wawa name from the second half of the 1800s into the early 1900s. See more below. 

An event of February 8, 1918, was a patriotic (toward the USA) speech by Coquelle Thompson “in Jargon or Athabaskan” (page 192). I feel pretty sure, at that late date into the rez era, it was indeed in Chinuk Wawa. It was reported, but not quoted in the February 15 issue of the Lincoln County Leader newspaper, on the front page, in an article that says some speakers used “the Jargon”; several of those named are known CW users. 

I appreciate that page 222 points out how Cora Du Bois, in her research for her excellent book on The 1870 Ghost Dance (read it!), heavily edited what were probably Chinook Jargon elements in statements made to her by Native people including Coquelle Thompson: ” ‘Less comprehensible colloquialisms’ were rendered into standard English; ‘in the interest of brevity and clarity’ repetitions were eliminated, and ‘circumlocutions’ were sometimes replaced with a single word; statements were sometimes rearranged in ‘more or less systematic order.’ “

I find myself wondering about page 237’s observation by anthropologist Elizabeth Jacobs that “Mr. Thompson never heard it called tarweed” and that he instead knew it as “Indian oats”. Could this mean that his Siletz community called it, in Chinuk Wawa, sháwásh lawén? 

Finally, a number of people in the Index are further examples of CW names — the Tolowa Hyas (‘big’) Johnny, and John and Mary Tyee ‘chief’ of Siletz reservation. The “Make-Doctor Dance” by Coquelle’s brother (page 80 for example) also sounds like a direct translation from Jargon (perhaps mamuk-dakta tanis?), as does “good talkers” for traditional intermediaries (e.g. page 85; maybe łush-wawa tilixam).

So there are a number of gems, some half-hidden, in this book that tell us very interesting things about the role of the Jargon in Oregon coast Native cultures during Coquelle Thompson’s lifetime.

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