Miller 1999 “Chehalis-Area Traditions” and Métis people of southwest Washington

Really well-done ethnographies of PNW tribal cultures will provide us with endless amounts of material to translate into Chinuk Wawa.

chehalis tribe traditions

(Image credit: Chehalis Tribe)

There is so much lovely stuff contained in these, just waiting to be made into lesson plans and for student practice.

You might come up against some specialized lingo like “dicta” (meaning magical spells), but that’s no biggie.

Language is cultural behavior, so you should familiarize yourself with the cultures that speak or spoke a language.

From NARN (now known as JONA) Spring 1999, 33(1): “Chehalis Area Traditions” by Jay Miller, pages 1-72.

Something I value highly in this paper of Jay’s, where he writes up Thelma Adamson’s excellent field notes, is that it combines information on the customs of several closely-interacting tribes of the southern Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. For our purposes as people who study the inter-cultural Chinook Jargon, it makes all the sense in the world to be thinking about how these cultures traditionally interacted.


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I have to comment on page 3’s comment by Miller claiming that Chinuk Wawa’s word t’əmánəwas ‘guardian spirit power’ derives “from tah, a [Sahaptian] word for spirit or spiritual ally.” There’s vastly more reason to believe this word is from Salish and originally meant the medicine-person’s practice of ‘sucking at the belly’. I’m currently finishing up a paper to publish on this topic.

Also on the subject of inter-cultural dynamics, if you have a read through “Chehalis Area Traditions” you’ll have a hard time not noticing that the Native people of this Chinuk Wawa homeland habitually thought of the earliest newcomers to their area as “French” and as “Canadians”. This is because the majority of their personal experiences with Newcomers were with the Métis employees who were the big majority of the workers in the fur trade times when “contact” was first being made. And it was mostly those Métis men that married into the tribes of southwest Washington, formed the first permanent Newcomer communities out here, and changed the Chinook Jargon into the Métis language we know today.

An example from page 6: Upper Chehalis people “went to Cowlitz to borrow canoes to go to Vancouver and Portland to trade…French and other traders wanted beaver hides from them.” Upper Chehalis also went to Monticello sometimes to “work for the French during harvest”.

Those same Canadian settlers near modern Kelso are also mentioned on page 9.

Page 10: Lucy Youckton was born at lakamasili (explained by Miller as Chinuk Wawa lakamas-iliʔi ‘camas-place’ (camas meadow)) Creek, about half a mile from Cowlitz Prairie. Her sister’s son was Joe Peter (husband of Agnes) — who was a spectacularly good Chinuk Wawa speaker, who we have hours of recordings of. Over in Lower Chehalis/Lower Chinook country, “Tokeland was home to Lizzie Johnson’s mother’s father. Her [Lizzie’s?] husband was part French and named Pe Ell (the French name Pierre). The town was named for him.”

Page 13 brings us remarks that support my argument that long-distance trading was quite rare in pre-contact times, because a chain of trading among nearby tribes was more the rule — therefore no Indigenous trading pidgin was ever needed. Here we learn that folks didn’t have much of a concept of the Nuuchahnulth people up north:

Dentalia (tusk) shells, dangling in strings, were used for earrings and other objects of wealth. As elsewhere along the Pacific coast, natives did not know that their source was Nootkan traders from the west coast of Vancouver Island, where the shells were ingeniously dredged up from the ocean floor several hundred feet deep. Instead, a race of dwarfs with tiny mouths, used to suck out the insides, was believed to supply the shells to the trade.

In fact I’ve never found a word for ‘Nuuchahnulth’ people, tribes, or places in the southwest Washington languages.

Page 15 helps us understand why ‘cat’ in the area’s Indigenous languages is a word from Chinuk Wawa: “Dogs and horses were native pets before whites came with cats. Other people said that the first horse came from the French and was seen at Tenino, brought by the Nisqually from the Yakamas.” Cats weren’t around until the Euro-Americans arrived…

‘Horse’ in CW and the Native tribal languages looks, however, like it may originally have been Spanish caballo loaned via a chain of Indigenous languages. This is my best current analysis of the many words for equines — CW kʰíyutən, Central Coast Salish s-tiqiw, etc.

Page 20: “Camas or lackamas were dug from marshes…” Nice to see the French la (‘the’) represented here; it’s clear that this originally Niimiipu (Nez Percé) Sahaptian word became part of PNW Métis French.

Page 23 educates us about another Aboriginal-times custom, known as “exogamy”. It was preferred to marry outside of your tribe, especially if you were upper-class. As a result you normally had relatives who could translate for you as need. This is another reason why there was no need for a pre-Contact pidgin trading language…

A chief had to marry a daughter from another royal family, often of another tribe. One of Yawnish’s daughters even married east of the mountains among the Yakama. She was one of the few to marry so far away. Mostly royals married along the coast. A chief gave presents to “buy” a foreign wife, but a commoner did not. They just “lived together” and probably even belonged to the same tribe.

There are many mentions of “chief John Heyden”, including the host of the last Upper Chehalis potlatch for which a special house (pá(t)lach-hàws) was built (page 23). This must be the referent of the name in the 1991 Upper Chehalis dictionary, < taixit n > (táyí Hayden)Potlatch Hayden’.

Also on page 23 — Chief Yawnish of the Upper Chehalis “was a “Boston man” who only had one wife at a time”. That is, he was like White people because of his choice to be monogamous.

One of the mentions of the customary category of sub-chief (sítkum táyí ‘half chief’ ~ tənəs-táyí ‘little-chief’) is on page 24: “Black Rivers had a little chief of their own, but were under Yawnish for overall advice. Same applied for little chiefs at Oakville and Skookumchuck.”

Page 30 is a neat example of how Chinuk Wawa became significantly integrated into tribal cultures:

When someone died, the family might remove [retire] a word that was like that person’s name. The dead were sacred so it was an insult to continue to use such words. For example, when a man died who name was “ax,” they made up a new word for this implement. When a woman died whose name sounded like “iron”, they used the chinook jargon word chickamin for “metal, money, and iron” instead. The Lower Chehalis changed their name for “deer” to “jumper” [xʷátəq] or “gray face,” [p̓áq̓ʷus] because a man died whose name sounded like the old word.

Followup comment on page 35: “Rob Choke’s grandmother did this for a relative named “noon” [in Indian] so everyone used the English word.”

Page 32 mentions a man known in Upper Chehalis as “Syk’amen“, defined here as “light, sickman”. I wonder if this is from Chinuk Wawa sík-màn, which could validly denote either ‘sick man’ or ‘disease-man’, the latter potentially labeling one of those medicine men who had powers to make people fall ill. I doubt that this name is from CW chíkʰəmin ‘metal; money; iron’ like the above woman’s name.

Page 36: “A pipe was called lapip, from the French word, and was sometimes passed around a circle.” Of course this is Métis French la pipe, but borrowed via Chinuk Wawa.

Same page: “At Satsop, the family of Stout, who killed Tenas Pete [who reburied graves and so had ghost power], died out because the murder was not settled with a payment and a feast.” Another Chinuk Wawa personal name, ‘Little Pete’. One of the most common CW words to be used in people’s names.

Sometimes we’ve heard of hand gestures or so-called sign language being used in the Northwest, but on page 38 there’s a new wrinkle that makes plenty of sense. A woman who escaped from enslavement in Oregon and made her way back towards Klallam territory on northern Puget Sound was “Near Centralia, [where] she met two men, but one was an enemy. The other man used lip gestures to warn her to stay off the main trails.” This has to have been some classic Native “pointing with the lips“.

Page 54: ” ‘Drift people’ referred to those who survived the Flood by casting off and floating away. Some people think they include the whites.” Ancient Native stories, by contrast, tell of surviving this flood by tying a canoe to the top of a mountain etc. On page 55, a flood story has “Pheasant” [Grouse] surviving in the tallest tree on the highest hill. Many PNW Indigenous languages in fact refer to non-Natives as ‘Drifters’ and semantically related terms. In some cases, this seems more of a reference to the first Euro-Americans arriving at some locales in big sailing ships, as with Nuuchanulth mamaɬn’i ‘(living in) houses on the water’.

French people are consistently identified with the earliest non-Natives to show up in western Washington. Page 54:

French stories were learned from early traders. Peter Heck thought that such stories were distinguished by the presence of ‘devils’. [Such tales seem to have more to do with royalty, fancy trade goods, monsters, and heroes named john, jack, or jean.]

Page 56 helps us understand the persistent linkage by Native people of Euro-Americans with the land of the dead:

Appearance of the whites…My grandfather said, when he was a boy, this was the Spanish or the Hudson’s Bay, that either the Squaxin or Mud Bay were camping one time. Big crowd of Indians camping on the shore. People came who were white. That is, a ghost. When came closer, the Indians said, ‘They smell strong like ghosts.’ The Indians were so clean, as went on, someone said, that must be people, others said, ‘No, ghosts.’ Others decided that the ghosts shouldn’t come again. That would cause people to die. Indians watched them in white’s camp, had boat, made fire, had something in their mouth to smoke. Some said ghosts are different that they come back from land of the dead. One warrior said, ‘What shell [shall] we do with them?’ Someone suggested, ‘Shall be no ghosts here. We’ll get rid of them.’ The chief agreed. When the whites went to sleep, hit him [them] on the head. One squealed, hit the others. Burned them up and everything they had. Thought they were really ghosts. Didn’t kill them from meanness, but were really afraid.”

Page 62 and following shows us quite a number of (Métis) “French Stories” in summarized form. All but the last 2 are from Mary Iley a.k.a. Eyley (part Taitnapam Sahaptin, but mostly Cowlitz Salish, a group that particularly often intermarried with Métis and used Chinuk Wawa at home). The last 2 are from “js” = Jonas Secena (Oakville Upper Chehalis Salish). Not all have been published elsewhere!

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?