1862: Letter to Abe Lincoln involves Chinuk Wawa

Ripe for back-translation into Jargon, we have some material that reached President Abraham Lincoln’s eyes straight from the Pacific Northwest.

This is an archived letter from Alfred R. Elder (a US government Indian Agent) to Abraham Lincoln, written Thursday, December 18, 1862.

Talk about a Civil War code! 😁

Two sections are of interest to us.

On page 1, Elder describes his fluency in “the language” of the (Upper) Chehalis, Cowlitz, Chinook, and (Lower Chehalis) Grays Harbor Indians — in reality at least 4 distinct languages, but he obviously means Chinook Jargon:

lincoln 1

My instructions are to gather these different bands, upon one Reservation, including the Chehalis, Cowlitz, Chinook and Grays Harbor Indians. I have entered upon the discharge of my duty, and hope to be successful. Having been so long upon this coast, I have become somewhat familiar with the character, habits and language of the Indians; therefore, I have no difficulty in gaining their confidences.

Page 3 gets into more details, proving that he’s speaking Jargon with the above-named tribes, who very effectively convey their skepticism of Settler hypocrisy in it:

lincoln 2

…upon the subject of drinking whisky or “lum,” as the Indians call it, it seemed to produce great excitement among them. They commenced talking in their native tongue, with great vehemence; after they were through, their speaker approached me, and asked me ‘if I knew Mr. Simmons.’ I told him, I have never seen him. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘Mr. Simmons was the first man who taught us to drink whiskey, he was a “Boston ty-ee,” that is, a Federal officer, ‘and all the Ty-ee‘s drink whiskey, therefore we have a right to drink too; but you have been with us two days, and if your conduct is the same all the time, we will follow your example.’

In this second passage, I like how we can detect the Chinuk Wawa original, not just in the three cited Jargon words, but also in its reflection of ChW’s “silent it” pronoun. Here I’m looking at “all the Ty-ee‘s drink whiskey, therefore we have a right to drink too”. Normal English as I grew up talking it would say “…to drink it too.” But normal Jargon uses no word at all for this inanimate 3rd-person object. 

What Elder quotes here is fairly easy to “back-translate” to Chinuk Wawa. That’s a task I think of as totally appropriate for any truly advanced student of ChW.

It’s closely related to the always-needed chore of back-translating the PNW treaties, and treaty negotiations, that were only recorded in English despite most of the business having been done in Chinuk Wawa.

(There is one and only one treaty-associated document preserved in Jargon. I’ll blog that precious gem of the language soon.)

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?