1840s?: Willamette Natives bargain over Christianity

A great quotation from the old CHINOOK Listserv


Nesmith’s route into Oregon (image credit: OBBG)

It shows Native people of the Willamette Valley in northwest Oregon exhibiting an understandable skepticism about early missionaries demanding that they become Christians.

This is from J.W. Nesmith’s address in Proc Oregon Pioneer Assoc 1880:19, quoted in Marshall,
William I. “Acquisition of Oregon: And the Long Suppressed Evidence about
Marcus Whitman“, 1911, Vol. II., pages 26-27.

James Willis Nesmith (1820-1885) was a major figure in the history of northwest Oregon, to which he emigrated in 1843. We’ve seen Nesmith connected with Chinuk Wawa many times.

Here’s an anecdote from this ChW-speaking early Settler:

“On one occasion I attended service conducted by a missionary for the
benefit of the Indians at Willamette Falls. The old chiefs, Yalocus and
Wansanius, with Slacom and other head men of their tribe and about 300 of
their people, were present. The sermon was preached in Chinook jargon and
consisted in an effort on the part of the preacher to unfold to his
benighted, filthy and half-naked audience the mysteries of the plan of
salvation. The poverty of the language did not admit of any elaborated
presentation of abstract ideas or principles; the preacher dwelt strongly
upon the efficacy of prayer and illustrated its benefits by pointing out
the superior physical comforts enjoyed by the white people over the savages
in habitation, food and clothing, and told them that they might enjoy
similar benefits by its practice. He then interrogated them as to whether
they were willing to ask for and receive the inestimable
benefits to be derived from prayerful supplication to the Deity. Old
Wansamus responded in behalf of his people:

“‘Nowitka, six; mica potlatch passissie, sakallux, sapalell, ittillwilla,
cayuse, hyu close itca copa konniway nica tillicum. Yaka koniway kwaniisum
wawa copa sohala tyee.’ Which translated to English was
substantially: “Yes, my friend; if you will give us plenty of blankets,
pantaloons, flour and meat and tobacco, and lots of other good things, we
will pray to God all the time and always.’

Interpreting that Jargon, which is written in Nesmith’s own unique spellings because he knew it fluently and from memory of hearing it spoken:

Nowitka, six; [1] mica potlatch passissie, sakallux, sapalell, ittillwilla,
nawítka, shiksh; mayka pá(t)lach pásísi, sik’áluks, saplél, íɬwili,
indeed, friend; you give blanket, pants, flour/bread, meat, 
(Nesmith) ‘Yes, my friend; if you will give us plenty of blankets, pantaloons, flour and meat’
(DDR) ‘Indeed, friend; you give blankets, pants, flour/bread, meat,’ 

cayuse, [2] hyu close itca copa konniway nica tillicum. Yaka [3] koniway kwaniisum
k’áynuɬ, háyú ɬúsh íkta kʰupa kánawi nayka tílixam. yaka kánawi kwánsəm
tobacco, much good thing to all m people, he all always 
(Nesmith) ‘and tobacco, and lots of other good things, we will’
(DDR) ‘tobacco, lots of good things to all of my people. All of them will always’ 

wawa copa sohala tyee. [4]
wáwa kʰupa sáx̣ali-táyí.
talk to sky-chief.
(Nesmith) ‘pray to God all the time and always.’
(DDR) ‘pray to God.’ 

Some comments:

[1] mica potlatch… ‘You give…’ is, as Nesmith knew from talking Jargon with lots of folks on the frontier, effectively the condition that the speaker is laying down. So it implies an “If” at the beginning. The speaker who’s quoted here is plenty fluent in Chinook Jargon, so it’s striking to see him leaving out as common a word as pus ‘if’. But pidgin language speakers are often as economical as this. In another West Coast pidgin, Chinese Pidgin English, you’ll hardly ever hear (well, read, because CPE is extinct here) anyone using a word for ‘if’. What I’m saying is, here we have a sign that this particular speaker learned Chinuk Wawa as an adult — not from childhood as a member of the creole/Métis language community. 

The word written as < cayuse > [2] should give anyone familiar with Pacific Northwest language history some pause. As Leanne Riding commented at the original CHINOOK post, it’s the same spelling as a Jargon (and then English) word for ‘pony’, ~ kʰáyús. But I’m absolutely inclined to follow Nesmith’s lead here, seeing it as k’áynuɬtobacco’. I would guess that Nesmith’s own pronunciation of this was approximately [kʰáynus]. He might have momentarily crossed wires mentally with “cayuse” when writing this. Also the typesetter might be partly to blame, an extremely common occurrence in those days of handwritten manuscripts. (Just search my website for “typo”!)

Yaka [3] koniway kwaniisum… ‘All of them will always…’ proves yet again a point that I first made in my 2012 UVic dissertation, that your average Indigenous speaker of Chinuk Wawa used yaka for all 3rd-person animate reference. (Thus, ‘she, he, they’.) The word ɬaska ‘they’ was rarer than we had been led to believe by the endless parade of English-language-oriented CW dictionaries; I’ve yet to run the statistics, but I believe ɬaska in say British Columbia data is used more as a quasi-passive (‘they say’ functioning as ‘it’s said’). (Important note: Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa is an exception, and this may very well be due to the outsized influence of English and Métis French there.) Those oldtime authorities would have us believe that Wansamus here really meant ‘He all will always…’!! As Jargon- and English-fluent as Nesmith was, it would be mighty surprising if he was accidentally using yaka here. 

The expression wawa copa sohala tyee [4], literally ‘talk to the sky chief’, is genuine older Chinuk Wawa for ‘pray’. Somewhat newer expressions for this in CW tend to be simpler, such as wáwa-sáx̣ali (‘talk-upwards’) and pʰliyé, from Canadian/Métis French prier. I don’t know if ‘talk to the sky chief’ is an old Indigenous metaphor. I do know that in Salish languages of the area, ‘pray’ tends to be the same word as ‘cry, weep’. 

Bonus facts:

Just preceding the above passage in “The Acquisition of Oregon” book, Nesmith tells how he had read of the huge numbers of Native people converted to Christianity by these Methodist missionaries — but on arriving in Oregon, he found “but one Indian — old Sticcus of Dr. Whitman’s mission — who made any pretension to Christianity”. Nesmith calls these missionaries “a lamentable failure”.

Dr. Henry Zenk commented on the original listserv post:

The name “Yalocus” looks like it could be for yelqas, who signed the 1855 Dayton Treaty for the main (=Northern) band of Molalas. Northern Molalas were intermarried with Willamette Falls Chinookans and frequented Oregon City, so the identification is not necessarily a stretch. In fact, yelqas may have had a Willamette Falls wife, though I’d need to check on that. I am tempted to wonder if “Wansanius” is a typist’s copying error for some approximation to the name waC’inu (C’ for ejective “ch”), who signed the same treaty as a chief of the Clackamas Chinookans (who had traditional wintering sites at Gladstone, a short distance downriver from Willamette Falls). That one may be more of a stretch: need to check if there are other likely names recorded. And as for: The poverty of the language did not admit of any elaborated > presentation of abstract ideas or principles such judgments sorely underestimate the ability of human beings to be creative even with limited resources. The Catholic missionary literature in Chinuk Wawa is a great case in point.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?