1877: Chinuk Wawa etc. on the Little Bighorn battlefield, from a Nez Perce

Hugh Lenox Scott (1853-1934) was seen as an authority on Plains Indian Sign Language…

the scout

“The scout — Nez Percé” by Edward S. Curtis (image credit: Library of Congress)

[Today’s post is dedicated to my late dad, who was quite the scholar of George Armstrong Custer.] 

Scott filled notebooks with information told to him by Native people via that pidgin (yes, pidgin) medium.

Another pidgin language that Scott took an interest in, though he wouldn’t have used it as much: Chinuk Wawa.

Assigned to the Little Bighorn area of Montana/Wyoming right after General Custer’s massacre there, he befriended a Nez Perce scout, who taught Lenox some Jargon translated into his own pidgin English, itself a valuable bit of data:

tippit 1

tippit 2


While riding along, a Nez Perce named Tippit attached himself to me, and we rode together every day. The horse he rode was branded with a big rooster; nobody branded stock in the Northwest in those days, and I concluded that it was a Spanish brand and that the horse must have been stolen in Mexico. Tippit started to teach me Chinook, the jargon used intertribally on the Columbia and up the Pacific coast. He would ride silent for a long time, trying to think up the English equivalent; then he would give me questions and English interpretation: “Cumtox Chinook wawa?” “You understand Chinook talking?” “Tenas cumtox.” “Me little understan.” “Nuyu cum.” “Me heap understan.” “Wake cumtox.” “Me no understand.” “Cumtox Boston wawa.” “You understan white man talkin?” Then to my complete astonishment he began to sing “Where, oh, where are the Hebrew children in Chinook?” “Ika altawa clatawa Siah” — which he had learned from some missionary on the Columbia when a child. Tippit proved an amusing companion and we encouraged him to talk as we marched along.

Notes on that Jargon:

  • “Cumtox Chinook wawa?” “You understand Chinook talking?” = kə́mtəks chinúk wáwa? ‘Know the Chinook language?’ Grammatical, but lacking a personal subject pronoun, which is also true of the next 4 sentences. We often find subjectless main clauses in truly pidgin (second-language) Chinuk Wawa — hardly ever in creolized (first-language) CW. By comparison, note that Tippit’s pidgin English always uses subject pronouns. 
  • “Tenas cumtox.” “Me little understan.” = tənəs-kə́mtəks ‘Know a bit (of it).’ We can infer that the speaker is using the fluent CW “silent it” object pronoun in this and the next 2 sentences. 
  • “Nuyu cum.” “Me heap understan.” = háyú kə́mtəks ‘Know a lot (of it).’ 
  • “Wake cumtox.” “Me no understand.” = wík kə́mtəks ‘Don’t know (it).’ 
  • “Cumtox Boston wawa.” “You understan white man talkin?” = kə́mtəks bástən wáwa ‘Know the American language?’ 
  • “Ika altawa clatawa Siah” = apparently yaka (or ɬaska) álta ɬátwa sáyá ‘(S)he (or they) have gone far away now.’ The actual lyric, as created by Reverend Myron Eells, is more complex: “Alki nesika klatawa nanitch, / Siah kopa kloshe illahee” = áɬqi nsayka ɬátwa nánich / sáyá kʰupa ɬúsh ílihi ‘some day we’ll go visit / far away in a good place”. Looks like either Tippit or Scott, or both, had an imperfect memory of this Protestant hymn. Like the “Marseillaise du Whisky” and “Seattle Illahee”, this one (“Kah, O kah mitlite Noah alta?”) was one of the early Chinook smash hits of PNW music, and it’s known to us from Nimiipuu country to the coast, and northward into Tsimshian territories.

Bonus fact:

There’s a later, quite acute, observation from Scott about Tippit, CW, and Plains Sign Language in this book:

scott book

He had forgotten his use of the sign language, in which he was very skillful in 1877, although he lived beyond the Rocky Mountains and outside of the sign-talking area where the intertribal language was the Chinook Jargon.

This observation shows that Scott was aware of how each of these pidgin languages had its own characteristic zone of use. Few people knew both of them, although I’d point out that Nez Perces would be among the tribes most likely to have experience of both.

Geography and cultural habits are the key factors there.

Interior Tribes of Idaho and Washington just west of the Rockies, especially the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), had relatively early exposure to Chinook Jargon, due to their proximity to fur-traders and to the Oregon Trail, and comparatively friendly dealings with both.

These same tribes traditionally crossed over, more or less annually, to the northern Great Plains to hunt buffalo. There they had recurring contacts with a variety of linguistically unrelated tribes. In addition, some Nez Perces would’ve worked as “scouts” for the US Army in its various campaigns against, and treaty-related dealing with, Plains tribes.

These interactions fostered the kind of sporadic but sustained relationships that encourage pidgin languages to flourish.

And that’s how it came to be that some significant number of Nimiipuu wound up speaking both Plains Sign Language and Chinuk Wawa.

I specify “some significant number” because I repeatedly see that the first serious adopters of CW, Métis French of the Mountains, and other Pacific Northwest contact languages were a pretty narrowly definable demographic: respected male leaders within their tribes. Dealings with outsiders seem to have been routinely handled by those known to us chiefs.

Only after there came to be more Settlers than Native people, so that mutual contacts became more routine, did the average tribal person seem to pick up Chinook.

These particular patterns (which I’ve mentioned here & there on my website) have not to my knowledge been pointed out in previous scholarship.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?