1910: A Spokane Wobbly bomb threat in Chinook?

Chinuk Wawa was sometimes suspected of being an enemy code during the US Civil War

Here’s a twist on that idea. The powers that be in Spokane were worried it was a language of death threats!

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(Image credit: Spokane Historical)

Getting right to the controversies…

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MAYOR’S A FAN, BUT NO INDIAN

Can’t Read Letter in Chinook Sent Him Asking About Food Prices.

Linguistic experts at the city hall were busy this morning in an effort to decipher a strange missive sent to Mayor Pratt.

After several hours of laborious effort on the part of John Lee, secretary to the mayor, who did not know whether this letter was an I.W.W. protest or a secret threat against the mayor, the matter was referred to Major [Rickard] Gwydir, who was able to translate the  missive from the original Chinook.

The puzzling letter is as follows:

Spokane, Wa., Ikt moon, Jagh-kum-pee-tahltum hun, 1910.

Hyas Tyhee Pratt, Kla-how-ya-six;

Mika tikeh ko-pa kumtux ik-tah ma-mook kultus snows wolke siah Hy-as ancutty, konaway tilacums isskum hyue chickamin, hyue muck muck, hyue ictus Spokane nah. Taki ten-as ancutty tilacums iskum halo chickamin hyas klahow-yum. Nika klonasklosh chaco al-ta ik-tahs hy-as mar-kook pee-tillicums ha-lo iskum chicamin markook man halo potlatch ictus kopa tilacums. Pee tiacums is-kum wake kloshe tum tum spose mika potlatch hy-ue mamook konaway iskum chickamin Kopa hyue ictus kopo markook house Nika potlatch delate wa-wa kopa mika. Hyas kloshe tilicum kopa mika, Pi[l] Kuitan.

The letter, translated in answer to the questions propounded by the mayor, regarding the cost of living, is as follows.

Spokane, Wash. Jan. 16, 1910.

How are you, Big Chief Pratt? You want to know what makes hard times now. Years ago all the people had plenty of money, plenty of food, plenty of everything in Spokane. Now people have no money and are very poor. I doubt if good times will return soon. Everything is high-priced and people have no money. Storekeepers will not give anything to the people without pay and the people have very hard times. Suppose you give the people plenty of work, all of them will get money to buy plenty of things from the store. I give good talk to you. A warm friend to you. Red Horse. 

— from the Spokane (WA) Chronicle of January 24, 1910, page 15, columns 2-3

And now for the usual closer look at the Chinook. I’ll break it into sentences to the best of my understanding. The reporter misread and/or miscopied some of the words, out of ignorance; knowledge of Chinuk Wawa in eastern Washington had ebbed greatly a generation after the frontier era. Uncertainties are marked by my *asterisks*. My own translation of what the letter’s heavily English-influenced Jargon actually says is indicated by “DDR”:

Spokane, Wa., Ikt moon, Jagh-kum-pee-tahltum hun, 1910.
spokʰǽn, wáshingtən, íxt-mún, táx̣am pi táɬləm [1] sán
 [sic], 1910.
Spokane, Washington, first-moon, six-and-ten [sic] day, 1910.
‘Spokane, Wash. Jan. 16, 1910.’
DDR: ‘Spokane, Wash., January six-and-teen [sic], 1910.’

Hyas Tyhee Pratt, Kla-how-ya-six;
háyás táyí prǽt, (k)ɬax̣áwya síks.
big-chief Pratt, hello friend. 
‘How are you, Big Chief Pratt?’
DDR: ‘Great chief Pratt, hello friend.’

Mika tikeh ko-pa kumtux ik-tah ma-mook kultus snows wolke siah 
mayka tíki kʰupa [2] kə́mtəks íkta mámuk kʰə́ltəs snú-s wík sáyá. 
you want for know what make no.good winter-s not far. 
‘You want to know what makes hard times now.’ 
DDR: ‘You want for to know why no-good winters are close.’

Hy-as ancutty, konaway tilacums isskum hyue chickamin, hyue muck muck, hyue ictus Spokane nah.*
hayas-ánqati, kʰánawi tílixam-s ískam [3] háyú chíkʰəmin, háyú mə́kʰmək, háyú íkta-s (Ø) spokʰǽn na*? [4]

very-long.ago, all people-s pick.up much money, much food, much thing-s (in) Spokane Yes/No?
‘Years ago all the people had plenty of money, plenty of food, plenty of everything in Spokane.’
DDR: ‘Very long ago, could(n’t) everyone pick up lots of money, lots of food, lots of stuff in Spokane?’

Taki ten-as ancutty tilacums iskum halo chickamin hyas klahow-yum.
álta* tənəs-ánqati [5] tílixam-s ískam hílu chíkʰəmin(,) hayas-(k)ɬax̣áwyam [6].  
now* little-long.ago people-s pick.up no money(,) very-poor.
‘Now people have no money and are very poor.’
DDR: ‘Now* it’s been a while* that people can’t pick up any money, (they’re) miserable.’

Nika klonasklosh chaco al-ta
nayka t’ɬúnas [7] (k)ɬúsh cháku álta.  
I maybe good.thing come now. 
‘I doubt if good times will return soon.’
DDR: ‘I (think)* maybe good things will come now.’

ik-tahs hy-as mar-kook pee-tillicums ha-lo iskum chicamin
íkta-s háyás-mákuk pi tílixam-s hílu ískam chíkʰəmin. 
thing-s big-buy and people-s not pick.up money. 
‘Everything is high-priced and people have no money.’
DDR: ‘Things are expensive and people aren’t picking up any money.’

markook man halo potlatch ictus kopa tilacums. Pee tiacums is-kum wake kloshe tum tum
mákuk-màn hílu pá(t)ɬach íkta-s kʰupa tílixam-s(,) pi tílixam-s ískam [8] wík-(k)ɬúsh-tə́mtəm. 
sell-man not giče thing-s to people-s, and people-s pick.up not-good-heart. 
‘Storekeepers will not give anything to the people without pay and the people have very hard times.’
DDR: ‘The storekeepers won’t give things to people, and people are taking a bad attitude.’

spose mika potlatch hy-ue mamook konaway iskum chickamin Kopa hyue ictus kopo markook house
spus mayka pá(t)ɬach háyú mámuk(,) kʰánawi ískam chíkʰəmin kʰupa háyú íkta-s kʰupa mákuk-hàws.
if you give much work, all pick.up money for many thing-s at sell-house. 
‘Suppose you give the people plenty of work, all of them will get money to buy plenty of things from the store.’
DDR: ‘If you give lots of work, all will pick up money for lots of things at the stores.’

Nika potlatch delate wa-wa kopa mika. 
nayka pá(t)ɬach dléyt wáwa kʰupa mayka. 
I give real talk to you. 
‘I give good talk to you.’ 
DDR: ‘I’m giving good advice to you.’

Hyas kloshe tilicum kopa mika, 
hayas-(k)ɬúsh tílixam kʰupa mayka, 
very-good friend to you, 
‘A warm friend to you,’ 
DDR: ‘A very good friend to you,’

Pi[l] Kuitan.
pʰíl kʰíyutən.
red horse. 
‘Red Horse.’
DDR: ‘Red Horse.’

Comments:

táx̣am pi táɬləm [1] is ‘six and ten’, which is an old-fashioned English way of saying ’16’, isn’t it? But what’s happening here is that the writer is confusing ‘6’ and ’10’. This looks like a memory issue, suggesting that this person used to know fluent Chinuk Wawa. The ironclad normal way to say ’16’ in Jargon is ’10 and 6′. 

mayka tíki kʰupa [2] kə́mtəks weirdly tries to use the preposition kʰupa like the English ‘to’ in the infinitive form of the verb: ‘to know’. This has never, ever been normal CW. Nobody ever really talked this way. Again it looks like someone’s Chinook was rusty. 

ískam [3] háyú chíkʰəmin obviously is expressing ‘earn lots of money’, but the usual Chinook Jargon expression for earning wages has always been túlu chíkʰəmin ~ túlu dála, ‘win/gain money’. See the last footnote below for more hijinks with ískam; uncertainty over this verb typifies English-speaking Settlers’ use of CJ. 

…(Ø) spokʰǽn na*? [4] This sentence is the murkiest one for me. Any way I read it, it’s awkward. It feels like the writer’s thoughts got away from his ability to express them in the language. 

álta* tənəs-ánqati [5] is really confusing, also. Part of the trouble has to be mis-copying by the reporter, but it also seems the writer was forgetting just how to say something like ‘now it’s been a while’, which I’d put as álta tənəs-líli

hayas-(k)ɬax̣áwyam [6], because it refers to humans, ought to be accompanied by the pronoun ɬaska ‘they’. Without it, this sounds like you’re talking about inanimate objects, using the “silent it” pronoun Ø. 

nayka t’ɬúnas [7] is just about the only “dictionary Chinook” I can identify in this letter. The writer seems to have read one of the old Chinuk Wawa dictionaries that translate t’ɬúnas as ‘doubtful’ — he’s thinking ‘I’m doubtful’ in English. The problem is that it’s more accurate to say t’ɬúnas, an adverb, means ‘doubtfully; it’s in doubt’. The word has never been an adjective. This is the kind of mistake that we see pretty much from Settlers only; Settlers were almost always literate. Native people in that era were rarely knowlegeable enough about English and writing to have bothered reading the published CW dictionareis. (Which were all in English.) 

ískam [8] wík-(k)ɬúsh-tə́mtəm is another seeming misuse of the verb ískam. That word means ‘to pick something up (intentionally)’. So this phrase is talking about ‘taking a bad attitude’. Seeing the sympathies that are expressed in this letter, I doubt that was the intended nuance. It would be more normal, and more in line with the sentiments expressed, to say t’ɬáp-wík-ɬúsh-tə́mtəm (to ‘catch’ bad feelings), or chaku-wík-ɬúsh-tə́mtəm (to come to have bad feelings). 

In a nutshell:

Today’s letter is in good Chinook Jargon — but rusty Chinook Jargon. There are definite mistakes in it.

Bonus fact: 

This letter could indeed have come from a radical left-wing labor unionist, as those comrades were really numerous in my hometown.

Spokane was a flaming hotbed of activism against class disparities at the time, as you can read for instance in fictionalized form in local author Jess Walter’s recent good novel, “The Cold Millions“.

But today’s text is far from a bomb threat! 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?