1948: BC oldtimers who speak Chinook: Names are named!

This mid-century local colour piece managed to draw a number of surviving Chinuk Wawa speakers out of the woodwork.

get-some-island-time-quadra-and-cortes-islands-british-columbia-canada-route-map (1)

(Image credit: BritishColumbia.com)

It was a pretty representative mix of the Native people and pioneer-era Settlers who typically knew the language well.

street corners

street corners 2a

street corners 2b

street corners 3

Street Corners


It seems the old Chinook Jargon isn’t as dead as I thought it was; there’s still quite a handful of British Columbians who remember enough to carry on a conversation or write a letter.

A little while ago I told of receiving a Chinook dictionary from a reader, and I guessed that the jargon was pretty well forgotten now that all Indians speak English. But since then I’ve had half-a-dozen letters on the subject, and nearly all the writers had no trouble translating the couple of sentences I dug out of the dictionary.

I said: “Nika hyas till mamook tzum. Nika tikegh iskum hiyu hyas pish.”

And the very first letter hit it right on the nose. It was from D.E. McTaggart, 3560 Marine Drive, Hollyburn.

“So you’re tired of writing and would like to go fishing and gets lots of big ones,” he translated. And I’ll bet he didn’t have to look at his dictionary. “Chinook is not as forgotten as you seem to think,” wrote Mr. McTaggart. “You can attend any meeting of the Pioneers’ Association and find a dozen who can, and do, exchange pleasantries in the jargon. Some of the best-known Chinook words live on. ‘Cultus’ to any old-timer expresses ‘worthless’ with certain overtones. ‘Chee-chako’ or ‘newcomer’ is common in stories of the Northwest. ‘Iktas’ means the impedimenta which a man gathers about him. ‘Wake Siah’ or ‘nearby’ is a street in Nanaimo. And ‘Illahie’ or ‘home’ is the beautiful name of many cottages and camps.”

I Get a Hymn, Too

Another expert in Chinook is J.W. Hall of 208 Third avenue, Kamloops, who tells of attending Methodist camp meetings for the Indians back in the eighties. That’s where he picked up a lot of the jargon — he sends me a hymn that starts “Mitlite kloosh Illahie, Siah, Siah.” In other words, “There is a Happy Land.”

And Sylva Childe, 2050 Barclay, sends along a translation of my Chinook made by J.C. Maclure, whom she calls the oldest living Native Son. He’s in his 87th year.

From Port Alberni comes a letter by George H. Bird, 216 Kingsway South, who learned Chinook in the early days when he was in the sawmill business. If you didn’t know the jargon, he recalls, the Indians wouldn’t even try to do business with you.

Walter R. Beasley of 512 East Forty-first tells how he used to listen to Chinook tales told by an old friend, the late George McGee of the Squirrel Cove tribe on Cortez Island. [That’s the Klahoose First Nation — DDR]

“I wish I could relate some of the stories he told us about the doings of the Mink, that god of the Coast Indians,” he writes. “But much of the telling went into the little diagrams drawn in the earth with a twig.”

And incidentally, Mr. Beasley doesn’t think much of salt water fishing; he’s a trout man himself.

“Yahka mitlite kopa Kamloops chuck, halo mitlite kopa English Bay salt chuck.”

In other words: “They live in Kamloops Lake, not in the salt water of English Bay.”

Crock for Translator

And finally, a note from W.J. O’Neill of Smithers, who learned most of his Chinook when he spent a year in a lonely cabin on the Skeena with Major R.W. Flewin of Vancouver years ago. They talked Chinook all the time.

“But the daddy of surviving Chinook talkers,” writes Mr. O’Neill, “is Judge Lester Mulvaney of Burns Lake. He can put the inventor to shame when he gets going. But Chinook talkers are few and far between now; and only a few of the really old Indians know it.

“A few years ago I ran a garage ad in Chinook. It was Christmas greetings. And I offered a prize of a crock for the best translation. Mrs. George Ingram of Vancouver won the battle. But she is the daughter of the late R.S. Sargent of Hazelton, and I suspected her Daddy helped her out.”

Halo weght Chinook wawa alta. Or as we might say: That’s the works for now.

— from the Vancouver (BC) Province of August 6, 1948, page 17, columns 1-2

Bonus fact:

That hymn mentioned above is the writer’s recollection (and spelling!) of a Chinuk Wawa translation from Stó:lō country, which I’ve examined previously. Yes, that’s a live link you can click to go read all about it!

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