“The Ethnography of Franz Boas”: How good was his Chinook?

Ronald Rohner compiled Franz Boas’s letters and diaries “written on the Northwest Coast from 1886 to 1911″…


Image credit: AbeBooks

…And of course these are of huge value to us in the Chinuk Wawa community!

“The Ethnography of Franz Boas” is a book published by the University of Chicago Press in 1969. I’ve found a number of wonderful selections in it that enlighten us about how Boas worked with Native people of the Pacific Northwest.

Rohner’s “Introduction” makes, on page xxiv, a crucial observation about Franz Boas that I’ve noted too:

Boas argued for the necessity of learning the native language well. This injunction to learn the language constitutes another minor inconsistency, however, between what Boas wrote should be done and what he himself did. He learned the Chinook Jargon and used this lingua franca in his research along the coast, but he did not become fluent in any indigenous Northwest Coast language, including Kwakwala, the native language of the Kwakiutl.

My own research has shown that, as great as his achievements were, Boas wasn’t even necessarily highly fluent in the nuances of Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa).

Therefore, all of his work in the tribal languages needs to be re-examined now.

It’s a lovely little paradox: without the massive data Boas gathered, we would now know very little about traditional use of (for example) Lower Chehalis Salish, an overlooked parent language of Chinuk Wawa. At the same time, his field notes show all sorts of misunderstandings between him and the speakers of tribal languages.

Page 6, in “Boas’ Introduction”, paints the scene of 1880s Victoria, BC, where he did so much good research, including writing down Indigenous stories told to him in Jargon:

Walking around the suburbs of Victoria, we come to that part of the town exclusively inhabited by Indians. They live in miserable, dirty wooden shacks or even in light tents. Visiting the Indian suburb in the evening, we find the inhabitants in gay, sociable gatherings. Friends are treated, the happenings of the day discussed, memories of the faraway native country exchanged, and gay songs can be heard everywhere. The Indians who live close together here belong to the various language groups of the coast. And since they do not speak any English, they use a mixed language, the Chinook [Jargon], in which the conversation goes along easily. The visitor who leaves the much-traveled tourist roads in British Columbia has to depend completely on this means of intercourse.

From the chapter on “Initial Field Work on Northwest Coast”, page 22’s entry for September 21 has Boas noting, about one of those tales:

I returned at about 8:30 and called for the Tsimsian [sic] with whom I wanted to work. He is very intelligent and tells me more than I expected. He immediately recognized one of my drawings from New York and told me a long story that goes with it, first in Chinook and then in his own language. The session lasted until one o’clock and I was satisfied with the results.

Another diary entry, dated September 22, picks up this thread:

My friend Mathew [sic], the Tsimsian, came again this morning and told me a long story of the origin of the cannibal. He recognized another of my pictures and wants to tell me the story today. (It is now the morning of the twenty-third.) He says it is a nice story and very long! I am looking forward to his arrival. 

After dinner I went to my Bella Coola woman to learn the details of yesterday’s story. Since I did not understand her well enough, I took her to town to an Indian store, whose owner had promised to help me. He understands Chinook very well. Fortunately he was able to understand something of her tale, and I found out a little more than before…Such a confusion of dialects and languages exists here that it is very difficult to accomplish anything in a short time.

On page 28 Boas, in a mixed performance, is again claiming to understand most of what the Native people are saying, in more than one language, while showing us his unscientific attitude towards Chinuk Wawa — treating it as if it has no grammar — and also giving us one of the earliest mentions of the “Pidgin Eskimo” of northern Alaska:

Conversation among the Bella Coola is of course in their own language. I generally understand just about enough to know what they are talking about. As soon as friends from other tribes are present, conversation is in Chinook [Jargon] [Rohner’s brackets — DDR}. I am gradually learning to understand this language quite well. Unfortunately the language is incomplete, even more so than the jargon among the Eskimo, although the latter contains fewer words. The people speak very rapidly, a rapidity which I can by no means approach. I understand everything that is in any way to be understood, however. It is characteristic of Chinook that one must guess the meaning of a sentence; one never knows what is subject and what is object. Even verbs and nouns can often not be distinguished, and one has to be very alert in listening to their mythical tales. When I get to Alert Bay I shall try as quickly as possible to pick up something of the language so that I can make myself understood. A mixture of Chinook and the native language is quite useful for purposes of communication.

Page 29 tells of working with a certain Native woman who is his introduction to a local Settler:

The Indian woman is married to a white man. She was very pleasant and helpful because of the manner of my introduction. “Papa,” as he is addressed in Chinook [Jargon] [Rohner’s brackets], seems to be highly respected by these people.

Still in 1886, and now I think at Alert Bay in Kwakwaka’wakw country — my photocopy doesn’t show me — Boas attends a potlatch. The local people and he don’t understand each other well, and his speech is material for us to back-translate to the Chinuk Wawa that he was speaking (pages 33-34):

Finally I noted that I had become the subject of their speeches, but naturally I had no idea what they wanted. At last they sent a young man who had been in Victoria for some time to interpret for me. I must add that the natives were not too clear about why I was there and what I wanted and that they were making all kinds of conjectures. At first they thought I was a priest, and now, because I had bought nothing, they thought I might be a government agent come to put a stop to the festival…Whether I wanted to or not I had to make a speech. So I arose and said: “My country is far from yours, much further even than that of the Queen. The commands of the Queen do not affect me. I am a chief and no one may command me. I alone determine what I am to do.” (I was introduced as a chief as soon as I arrived here and am so introduced wherever I go.) “I am in no way concerned with what Dr. Powell (the Indian agent whom all the natives dislike) says. I do not with to interfere with your celebration. My people live far away and would like to know what people in distant lands do, and so I set out. I was in warm lands and cold lands. I saw many different people, and told them at home how they live. And then they said to me, ‘Go and see what the people in this land do,’ and so I went and I came here and I saw you eat and drink, sing and dance. And I shall go back and say: ‘See, that is how the people there live. They were good to me and asked me to live with them.’ ” This beautiful speech, which fits in with their style of storytelling, was translated and caused great joy. A chief answered something or other, but unfortunately they mistook me for a very important personage and demanded a written statement from me that no gunboat would be sent. So I had to explain to them that the Queen was somewhat more powerful than I, but I promised to say that I liked to see them sing and dance. They were satisfied with this and promised to make a big celebration for me tomorrow. I think I managed the affair quite well. Until a few minutes ago all the chiefs have been coming to see me to tell me that the “hearts” of all their people were glad when they heard my speech.

I blame my rushed photocopying while at the library for the fact that I’m not sure the following is in the same area of northern Vancouver Island; it’s page 37, and it contains more stuff to back-translate to Chinook Jargon:

I had been told that the third chief was most unhappy that I had not sought him out, so I had to remedy that. But first I held my own “potlatch” to pay for the dance held yesterday…When they were almost finished, the chief arose and gave a long speech, which was interpreted for me. “This chief,” he said, pointing at me, “has come to us from a distant land, and all our hearts are glad. He is not like the other whites who have come to us. His heart is pure and kind toward us Indians. None of the King George men (English) or the Boston men (Americans) gave us…festival. [The ellipsis is Rohner’s.] But his people must be good and he shows that he has the heart of a chief. Whoever of us shall meet him, will be glad and recognize him as a great chief. We are glad he came and hope he will return. My heart is friendly toward him and if he wants anything from us we shall do our best to do what he asks.” I accepted the speech with proper compliments and gave some tobacco to every man…

About a quarter of an hour later I went to the third chief, taking all manner of trinkets along, and told him that I knew he was a great chief, and that he should tell me the story of his family as the other chiefs had done. He speaks no Chinook [Jargon] [brackets are Rohner’s] and I had to use an interpreter.

Arriving at Alert Bay, page 43:

My Indian friend and I laughed about our trip, and he said to me: “Maika kakoa manita, maika haiach kuli kopa eti!” (“You were just like a deer, so quickly you jumped on shore!”)
[mayka kákwa máwich, mayka (h)áyáq kúli kʰupa ílihi!, literally ‘you’re like a deer, you quick-moved to land!’ — DDR]

Page 56, perhaps in the Nanaimo area:

Well, I found them all assembled in front of the fire discussing the case “Boas,” or just about to begin. I understood an occasional word and gathered that they were discussing my wishes. The result was the Big Bill, who up to now had forbidden them all to tell me stories, said in the best Chinook [Jargon] [brackets are Rohner’s] that he would help me, and he has really kept his word. But there was nothing to be done then, since the big, warm dinner had first to be eaten. If I had understood their language, it would have been an excellent occasion for me to learn to make “after dinner” speeches…the Indians mainly take the opportunity to speak of presents they have formerly given and to boast that they have the heart of a chief [?] [brackets are Rohner’s]

In 1888, somewhere in southern BC, an incident with skookum papers that’s ready for back-translation to Chinuk Wawa:

…the old chief…told me much of great value. The Indians here are all alike. First he got out all his “papers,” which I had to admire. He said, “It is not good to proceed too fast. First I must show you that Chief Joseph is a good man.” And then I had to make some flattering remarks about his papers, which he subsequently wrapped up carefully in a handkerchief.

Then we had the following conversation: “Who sent you here?” “I have come to see the Indians and to tell the white people about them.” “Do you come from the Queen’s Country?” “No, I am from another country.” “Will you go to the Queen’s country?” “Perhaps.” “Good, when you get there go to the Queen and tell her this. Now write down what I say: Three men came (i.e., the Indian agent and two commissioners) and made treaties with us and said this is the Queen’s land. That has made our hearts sad and we are angry at the three men. But the Queen does not know this. We are not angry at her. God gave this land to my ancestors, and it is not right that the three men take it. Now read what I have said.” I read it and said everything as he had spoken. But he corrected me so that I always had to read: “Chief Joseph says so and so, etc.”

In 1890 apparently is the complaint on page 116:

I have now been here in Siletz for two days and have started to work. I am finding it very difficult because I do not have a good interpreter.

Page 117’s comment by Boas, also at Siletz Indian Reservation (south of Grand Ronde, Oregon), has enormous implications for some fights that’ve raged over the decades since, over whether southern and northern Chinuk Wawa are the same language:

The Chinook [Jargon — DDR] spoken here is very different from that in British Columbia, and therefore I experience difficulty in talking with them. This morning the agent [federal official — DDR] came back and sent for an Indian who knows English…Most of the young people speak English.

Not far away, pages 119-120 have Boas pointing out Métis people who speak Chinuk Wawa:

[In Seaside, Oregon — DDR] The Indians I visited are quite civilized, mostly half-French…Only one old woman understands the language [Tillamook Salish — DDR], but she does not speak English, so that I have to rely on my Chinook. I really get along all right with it, but unfortunately it is hard to get people to speak slowly…I worked yesterday until 6 P.M. with the old “aunt,” whose husband is a French half-breed…
[In Ilwaco, Washington — DDR] I am getting along fine with my old woman, I think. Her husband is a French half-breed from Arkansas who has been working for the Hudson Bay Company for about twenty years. [This must mean ‘worked’ long ago — DDR] He was a great help to me.

An important point of information comes only as a passing remark on page 121, regarding Q’lti a.k.a. Charles Cultee of Bay Center, Washington:

Fortunately my Indian is very intelligent. His English is not very good, but he quickly caught on to what I wanted, and he understands his own language…This man is the only one left who really knows the language. [This refers to Lower Chinookan; Cultee worked with Boas via Chinuk Wawa — DDR]

An 1894 visit to a southern interior BC Native village gives us more stuff to back-translate into Chinook Jargon:

The chief…made a long speech in which he emphasized his perfection and also said how humble he was: “God gave me these arms and these hands, and everything I have I owe to him. The government once wanted to give us farm implements, but I refused. What I don’t earn with my own hands I don’t deserve and don’t accept and don’t want. I was supposed to be chief, but I refused and said that they should assign to me two old men to rule with me.”

At North Bend, BC, in the same year, Boas visits a Chinuk Wawa celebrity (page 141):

When I was all finished and had my dinner, I went to the missionary, Father Le Jeune, and asked him to explain to the people in church what I wanted. He not only promised to do this but told me to come right after the mid-day service…I stayed last night until ten o’clock with the missionary, and we discussed the Indians.. He makes a “hobby” of teaching the children writing in shorthand, and strange to say they learn it much more quickly [than by longhand] [brackets are Rohner’s — DDR] because the signs are much simpler. I had studied the alphabet the day before and read something to the Indians; they enjoyed it very much.

On page 156, also in 1894, Boas notes that “no one understands the same Chinook” Jargon; he apparently resorts to hiring a Tsimshian-English interpreter. When that man misses work due to his wife’s supposed illness, Boas goes on working with an old man who dictates stories to him in Tsimshian but, as he “doesn’t know any English and very little Chinook”, can’t explain them to the researcher.

Some time later (1897?), on page 216 Boas is telling of visiting what’s apparently Kwakwaka’wakw territory:

For the past few days I have had a good interpreter (female), only for Chinook, but everything goes ten times as fast…My interpreter speaks the language so clearly that I get a lot out of it.

On page 228 Boas says of “My Haida friend…his Chinook is rather limited [so] the conversation is very difficult.”

And in 1923 Boas writes to his wife, “I speak Chinook [Jargon] [brackets are Rohner’s] with all the people except my main language. I speak the Chinook [Jargon] quite well, although there are always…words that pop up. [Ellipsis is Rohner’s.] I take it down in shorthand, everything they tell me.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
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