“Ten Years of Missionary Work…Skokomish” (Part 1 of 3)

There’s plenty of really substantial material in the 1886 memoir of Myron Eells, an acute on-the-spot observer of Puget Sound Native life, who sometimes writes of himself as “I” and sometimes in the third person.

Some of that good stuff in his “Ten Years of Missionary Work among the Indians at Skokomish, Washington Territory” is in Chinook Jargon, and some (not all reproduced by me here) is in English but just begging for back-translation into CJ.

There are also numerous excellent drawings by the author.

skokomish agency


One of the first non-Native residents was the Catholic missionary father Eugène-Casimir Chirouse “the elder”, who came to Puget Sound “about 1850”,which was also the era when Settlers began arriving there. Chirouse lived in Twana Salish (Skokomish) territory for a while (page 21).

Reverend Myron Eells, among the very first non-Natives born in Washington Territory (1838, near modern Spokane), became the Indian Agent of Skokomish in 1871.

Chinook Jargon “is spoken by nearly all the Indians, except the very old and very young, as far south as Northern California, north into Alaska, west to the Pacific Ocean, and east to Western Idaho.” (Page 33.) This is one of the most accurate characterizations of the language’s historical region of use ever published by 1886.

More about the Jargon: “Very few whites, even when married to Indian women, have learned to talk any Indian language except this.” (Pp. 33-34.)

Chinuk Wawa wasn’t the only lingua franca in the Skokomish area:

“The Twana language…is said to be so difficult to learn that no intelligent Indian advised me to learn it. The Nisqually [Txʷəlšucid, southern Lushootseed Salish] is said to be much easier, and one educated Indian advised me to learn it, but it did not seem to me to be wise, for while nearly all the Twana Indians understood it, as, in fact, nearly all the Indians on the upper [southern] sound do, yet it was spoken by very few on the reservation.

Hence I have often used an interpreter while preaching on the Sabbath at Skokomish, for then usually some whites, old Indians, and children were present who could not understand Chinook. At other times and places I constantly used the Chinook language. But a good interpreter is hard to obtain. “It takes a minister to interpret for a minister,” was said when Mr Hallenback, the evangelist, went to the Sandwich Islands, and there is much truth in it. The first interpreter I had was good at heart, but he used the Nisqually language. While most of them understood it, yet this person had learned it after he was grown, and spoke it, the Indians said, much like a Dutchman does our language. Another one, a Twana, cut the sentences short, so that one of the school-boys said he could have hardly understood all that I said had he not understood English. A third could do well when he tried, but too many times he felt out of sorts and lazy, and would speak very low and without much life. Hence sometimes I would feel like dismissing all interpreters, and talking in Chinook, but then I was afraid that it would drive away the whites, who could not understand it, but whose presence, for their examples’ sake, I much desired. I feared also that it would drive away the very old ones, who sometimes made much effort to come to church, and also that the children, whose minds were the most susceptible to impressions, would lose all that was said. So there were difficulties every way.

The medley of services and babel of languages of one Sabbath are described as follows: The opening exercises were in English, after which was the sermon, which was delivered in English, but translated into the Nisqually language, and a prayer was offered in the same manner. At the close of the service two infants were baptized in English, when followed the communion service in the same language. At this there were present twelve white members of the Congregational church here, and one Indian [and four more Whites]…There were also present about seventy-five Indians as spectators. The Sabbath-school was held soon after, severnty-five persons being present. First, there were four songs in the Chinook jargon; then three in English, accompanied by an organ and violin. The prayer was in Nisqually, and the lesson was read by all in English, after which the lessons were recited by the scholars. Five classes of Indian children and two of white children were taught in English, and one class partly in English and partly in Chinook jargon. There was one Bible-class of Indian men who understood English, and were taught in that language, a part of whom could read and a part of whom could not, and another of about forty Indians of both sexes whose teacher talked English, but an interpreter translated it into Nisqually; and then they did not reach some Clallam Indians. Next followed a meeting of the Temperance Society, as six persons wished to join it. A white man who could do so, wrote his name, and five Indians who could not, touched the pen while the secretary made their mark. Three of these were sworn in English and two in Chinook. The whole services were interspersed with singing in English and Chinook jargon.

This was soon after I came here. During the past year we have often sung in English, Chinook jargon, Twana, and Nisqually, on the same Sabbath. Another medley Sabbath is given under the head of the Jamestown [S’Klallam Salish tribe, to the north] Church, in connection with its organization.” (Pp. 34-37.)

The local Indigenous religion is discussed, pages 37ff. “The practical part of it goes by the name of ta-mah-no-us, a Chinook [Jargon]  word, and yet so much more expressive than any single English word, or even phrase, that it has almost become Anglicized. Like the Wakan of the Dakotas, it signifies the supernatural in a very broad sense. There are three kinds of it.” The first is the Black Tamahnous secret society, with its violent symbolism; it was introduced by northern neighbors, the Clallams (S’Klallam), who in turn seem to have gotten it from the Makahs…

black tamahnous

p. 38

Second is “The Red, or Sing, Tamahnous” (p. 39). I strongly suspect sing is a Chinuk Wawa word here, as we also find it a number of times through the years in the Kamloops Wawa newspaper of BC, and also in Grand Ronde down south — always as a synonym of sha(n)ti wherever it occurs.

black tama bird mask

p. 39

The caption on the following illustration seems inaccurate; I’d think it’s more likely a wolf mask, because of the religion’s seeming northern sources:

swine masks

p. 40

mask used

p. 41

p 42 mask

p. 42

Third is the “tamahnous for the sick”. This is traditional practice of curing by a medicine man. For my money, it must obviously be the original, as it’s not said to have come from another tribe, and it matches my proposed Salish etymology for the Chinuk Wawa word t’əmánəwas, “sucking at the belly” as has been done for centuries. Eells suggests (p. 44) that this one “is the only part of tamahnous, which I think an Indian can hold and be a Christian, because it is held partly as a superstition and not wholly as a religion. Some white, ignorant persons are superstitious and, at the same time, are Christians. The bad spirit which causes the sickness is called a bad tamahnous.”

I don’t see where in this system to fit Eells’s remark on page 55 that during gambling, “tamahnous songs are sung, so as to invoke the aid of their guardian spirits.” But this is an accurate use of the word t’əmánəwas in Jargon, as the more generic ‘spirit helper power’.

[Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3.]

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you know?