TENAS WAWA--The Chinook Jargon Voice Chinook Jargon Notes

"Judge" Swan

and "Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory."

James Gilchrist Swan was well-educated and the son of an upper-middle-class family in Boston, Massachusetts. In the year 1849 at the age of thirty-four he left Boston, a successful ship-fitting business, a wife and two children and headed west under the guise of seeking wealth in the gold fields of California. Adventure was what was in his heart and he soon grew distasteful of the bonanza mentality there. He boarded a ship bound For Vancouver Island and residency, but was refused entry under the British requirement that immigrants bring servants. He sailed across the Straight of Juan de Fuca to Port Townsend and filed a free land claim.

Back in San Francisco, he hired out as a shipfitter for two years. During this time he met a man by the name of Charles Russell (not the painter), a resident of Willapa (Shoalwater) Bay. He also met Chetzamoka, the S'Klallam chief, with whom he developed a close and lifetime friendship. Both men encouraged him to come to Washington Territory, which he did, and in 1852 he began the rest of his life as a Washingtonian. "Judge Swan," as he was locally known, was a multi-faceted character and a real figure in the history of the Northwest.

His Washington experience began with harvesting and shipping oysters from Willapa Bay, where for three years he worked, played and lived with the Chehalis and Chinook people. Ever intrigued with native cultures, he quickly developed an easy rapport with them, learning their customs and language. He grasped Chinook Jargon quickly and became near-fluent in the speech of the Chehalis. His involvement with native people was ever present and interlaced with all that he did in his life.

The Judge was involved in some of the treaties of 1855, and served as secretary to Isaac Stevens, the Washington Territory's first Governor and later delegate to the nation's capital.

After spending four years at Neah Bay with the Makah People as teacher of the "the three R's" and "dispenser of medicine," he published a manuscript for the Smithsonian Museum entitled "The Indians of Cape Flattery" (available today in bookstores). He later collected material for the Smithsonian from all over the Northwest Coast.

Swan finally settled in Port Townsend, opened a law firm, served as probate judge, wrote articles for newspapers in Boston and San Francisco, and in his free time could be found in the company of his old buddy, Chetzamoka. As a humorist and historian, the Judge was always a welcome public speaker.

Following are some excerpts from one of Swan's works entitled "The Northwest Coast," or "Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory." What he has to say about Chinook Jargon is interesting:

"The Jargon is the medium by which the Indians hold intercourse with each other and with the Whites. This Jargon is composed of Chenook [sic], French and English languages and is supposed by many to have been formed by the Hudson Bay Company for trading purposes. Such, however, is not the fact. There have been constant additions to the Jargon since the advent of the Hudson Bay Company, for many of the words now in general use in the language are of French and English origin; but I think that, among the Coast Indians in particular, the Indian part of the language has been in use for years.

"It is a language confined wholly, I believe, to our Northwestern possessions west of the Rocky Mountains. It originated in the roving, trading spirit of the tribes and has been added to and increased since the introduction of the Whites among them.

"The Jargon is interesting in showing how a language can be formed. The words of the three distinct languages   the French, English and Indian   are made to form a separate and distinct tongue. It is a language, however, never used except when the Indians and Whites are conversing or by two distant tribes who do not understand each other, and only as an American and a Russian would be likely to use French to communicate their ideas to each other. The Indians speaking the same language no more think of using the Jargon while talking together than the Americans do.

"The Indians are very quick to detect any difference in intonation or method of pronunciation of the Whites, and think we speak different languages. An Indian asked me one day (while pointing to a cow) what was the name we called that animal. I told him 'cow'. He said that he had just asked another white man and he called it a 'caow'."

Swan goes on to explain regional variations in the Jargon and problems that were encountered at a treaty on the Chehalis River. Colonel B.F. Shaw interpreted the treaty terms into Jargon. Swan says,

"Although he was perfectly understood by the Cowlitz and Satchap [Satsop] Indians, he was but imperfectly understood by the Chenooks [sic], Chehalis and Queniults [Quinalts], and it was necessary for those present who were conversant with the coast tribes to repeat to them what he said before they could fully understand."

Although not copied for "Tenas Wawa," his Jargon vocabulary at the rear of the book is worth looking at. It has strange (depending on your point of view) spelling and includes many words that don't appear in any other Jargon dictionary but which may have been specific to the Willapa Bay area.


(Copyright © 1993 by Duane Pasco)

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