TENAS WAWA--The Chinook Jargon Voice Chinook Jargon Notes

The Jargon's Role in the Treaties of 1855

In 1855 Isaac Stevens was governor of Washington Territory and also Superintendent of Indian Affairs. It was his desire to make fast work of relocating the Indians of the Territory to reservations. This, of course, meant having the various tribes sign treaties at councils. For the Puget Sound area there were three such councils: Medicine Creek, Point No Point and Point Elliott.

For reasons unknown, Governor Stevens insisted that the treaties be translated from English into Chinook Jargon and then into the various Salish dialects of the area. I recently read an article (the author may remain anonymous) in which it was stated that at the time of the signing of the Point Elliott treaty the Indians of Northern Puget Sound did not yet know Chinook Jargon, because they didn't understand the terms of the treaty. It is my belief that the Natives of Puget Sound, the northern Sound included, were well acquainted with Chinook Jargon at the time of the treaty. William Frazier Tolmie, in his journals, makes reference with seeming bitterness as to the necessity of having to learn Chinook Jargon in order to communicate with the Natives. Following is a portion of an entry dated Tuesday, June 25, 1833: "Have begun making a vocabulary of the Chenooke Jibberish, by which we communicate with the Indians   It is a vile compound of English, French, American and the Chenooke Dialect." This was written at the then emerging Fort Nisqually, located on Puget Sound. Natives from all over the Sound and Juan de Fuca Strait were coming there to trade, including many visits from the S'Klallams and Suquamish. S'Ealth, Chief of the Suquamish, was a regular visitor and major signatory at the Treaty of 1855.

A few years ago I was asked by a high school history teacher to translate portions of the Point Elliott Treaty into Chinook Jargon for a school play reenacting the event. For the purposes of trade, story-telling, party and gambling songs, Chinook Jargon is a reasonable medium of communication, depending of course on the artistry of the deliverance. For the task at hand I tried to put myself in the position of a translator in 1855, translating impromptu the legal-eeze of that lengthy document, keeping in mind also the philosophy of the Natives at that time. It was extremely difficult, and required many more pages of Chinook than the original English. Fortunately the parts of the Treaty that I was requested to translate didn't include dealing with geographical coordinates.

We don't know what was the skill level of Mr. Simmons, the Chinook interpreter for that Treaty, or his sense of integrity. If he was an expert and had a full understanding of Native culture (I think I read somewhere that he had only been in the area a short while), the translation of a document of this nature would have been a remarkable feat, if the intention was for the signatories to truly understand it.

If the translation of the Treaty into Chinook Jargon was an incongruous effort, imagine translating Stevens' opening address to the Natives at that same council. He began, "My children! You are not my children because you are the fruit of my loins, but because you are the children for whom I have the same feeling as if you were the fruit of my loins. You are my children for whom I will strenuously labor all the days of my life until I shall be taken hence."

It is interesting that George Gibbs, the secretary, failed to record any of the Chinook that was delivered during the Council.

It is my personal belief that Governor Stevens was unconcerned whether the Natives understood the Treaty or not. They knew they were going to be moved to reservations, and knew the repercussions if they failed to comply. I believe that they signed the Treaty with a sense of futility and had but a vague understanding of the detailed terms until later. I believe that the Chinook version of the Treaty was babble. The Indians understood Chinook well enough, but not the translator.


Mamook tzum okoke cultus pepah!

(Let's just sign the damn thing.)

(Text and drawing Copyright © 1993 by Duane Pasco)

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