A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 2002

Tenas Wawa*
Chinook Jargon
*Tenas Wawa, small talk

by Kenneth (Greg) Watson

Here in the Northwest, we have a heritage of words found nowhere else in the world: words like tyee, skookum, tillicum, and alki. Probably eight out of ten people who have grown up in our area could rightly tell you that skookum means strong or tough. The same people would likely say that skookum is an "Indian" or Native American word. They would be right again - sort of.

Skookum brand apple label, c 1930s.
Chinook Jargon was sometimes used in advertising to conjure images of an imagined pioneer past, often involving demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans.

These words and many others like tolo, hyak, and klahowya are from the Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon, sometimes simply and inaccurately called Chinook, is a sort of shorthand language historically used between Native American tribes on the Northwest Coast and later by the Europeans and European Americans who traded with them and lived among them. The Chinook Jargon was and is an interesting part of our region's culture and history. Consider these facts:

  Chinook Jargon is not the actual language of any tribe. It is a collection of a few hundred words describing basic ideas. It is easily learned, and as such is practical for trade between people who do not understand each other's languages. It is not, however, complex or subtle enough for the conduct of government, personal relationships, complex technologies, or other requirements of community life. No one would have used Chinook Jargon in everyday conversation with family and friends.

  Use of Chinook Jargon began in ancient times. By the time the earliest written records of our region were made; for example, John Rogers Jewitt's account of his captivity in 1803-1805, Chinook Jargon was already established from the Columbia River to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. Since archaeological evidence indicates that long distance intertribal trade goes back thousands of years and since dozens of distinct Native languages and dialects were spoken on the Northwest Coast, some form of trade Jargon must have been developed many centuries ago to enable disparate tribes to conduct business.

  Chinook Jargon is named for the Chinook or Tsinuk people, whose traditional lands are on the lower Columbia River. The Jargon uses some words from the Chinook language, but not its complex structure or full vocabulary. The Chinook tribal language and the Chinook Jargon are not the same thing, nor is the Jargon a version of any other tribe's regular language.

  Chinook Jargon includes words from several other Native American languages, as well as English and French words added by explorers and fur traders after the arrival of Europeans on the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s. While still recognizable, the Jargon pronunciations of European words have often been changed to suit the dialects of the coast. For example, rum became lum or lab and the French merci smoothed into mahsie.

  Several dictionaries of Chinook Jargon have been published. Perhaps the earliest published vocabulary comes from Samuel Parker in the 1830s, with new word lists and dictionaries being compiled into the mid 20th century (see bibliography below.) Spelling varies between these works because the Chinook Jargon began as a purely word-of-mouth proposition. Much of the interest in organizing the Jargon as a language came from anthropologists who saw it as yet another endangered part of Native American culture, and from missionaries who saw Chinook Jargon as a way of reaching the largest number of potential converts without having to learn each of the main languages of the region's Native population. The largest Chinook Jargon dictionary ever assembled was a five-volume 1893 manuscript by Reverend Myron Eells. Most Chinook Jargon dictionaries are small, even though they usually include translation to and from English. This is one of the best illustrations of just how limited the Jargon's vocabulary is compared to a full language. One of the best, copyrighted in 1935 by Edward Harper Thomas, includes about 580 individual listings of Chinook Jargon words, not counting multiple meanings of each word or English to Jargon entries. A recent edition of the Reader's Digest English Dictionary has the same number of entries on 11of its 1565 pages. Any Native American language has or would have had a vocabulary comparable to English in size and complexity.

  Chinook Jargon played a key (but not very positive) role in one of the most important series of events in Washington history. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens conducted a series of meetings in late 1854 and 1855 to make treaties between Native American tribes and the United States Government. Stevens told his official translator, Benjamin Shaw, to use the limited and imprecise Chinook Jargon to translate treaty terms and questions between Native leaders and the Governor's delegation, even though translators were available who spoke both English and the regional Native languages. Owen Bush, a settler in the Olympia area who was present at the time later said, "I could talk the Indian languages, but Stevens did not seem to want anyone to interpret in their own tongue, and had that done in Chinook." It is difficult to believe that Stevens' aims included real negotiation or genuine understanding of treaty terms. One result of the hasty and poorly understood treaties was almost immediate armed conflict in the Puget Sound region. Again quoting Mr. Bush "Stevens wanted me to go into the war, but I wouldn't do it. I knew it was his bad management that brought on the war, and I wouldn't raise a gun against those people who had always been so kind to us when we were so weak and needy."

A treaty encampment, 1855.
Governor Stevens required that treaties be negotiated in a Trade Jargon. Imagine: A vocabulary of less than 600 words to decide the fate of your people.

  By the early 20th century, Chinook Jargon became a point of identity and pride for many long-term residents - distinguishing them from the flood of post-Alaska Gold Rush newcomers. One 1908 publication urged people to "talk Chinook at the Golden Potlatch" (an annual celebration in Seattle, ancestor to the modern Seafair.) The use of Chinook Jargon as regional identification also resulted in a variety of product names (see illustration of apple box label) and the fact that about two-thirds of the high school and college annuals in the museum's collection have Chinook Jargon names.

Siwash squaw brand apple label, c 1930s.
Siwash, from the French for savage. Iskum (hold on,) Tum Tum (mind or heart), and Nesika (we or ours) all are names of annuals from the museum's collection.

If your interest in Chinook Jargon has been sparked, pick up one of the dictionaries still in print and spend a little time investigating this fascinating part of our history. The World Wide Web also features many Jargon sites, try Tenas Wawa: The Chinook Jargon Voice or Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon. To get you started, here are a few of the more familiar Chinook Jargon words with brief comments. Mesika mitlite hyas heehee!

From the Chinook language of the lower Columbia, originally pronounced AHL-kee, meaning by and by, soon, hold on, and other connections to the future tense. This word is now firmly connected to the beach on the West Seattle peninsula where the city of Seattle began in late 1851. Historical accounts say that entrepreneur Charles Terry wanted to name the tiny settlement New York, and that someone, either a well-wisher or doubter, added Alki to the name, with the connotation of maybe some day. Some time during the twentieth century the pronunciation of the second syllable changed from kee to kai. Alki was also the slogan on the seal of Washington Territory.

Boston (also pasten, pasted, or Boston man)
From the city of Boston. A general term for American citizens, many of whom came to the Northwest Coast on ships from Boston. King George man or King Chautsh is the equivalent term for a British subject.

From the Chinook language of the lower Columbia, meaning bird, something flying, or wing. It may be that the word imitates the sound of a flying bird's wings. Kalakala is the name of the streamlined ferry recently returned to Seattle for restoration. For decades, many Washington State Ferries, including the Kaleetan, Hyak, and Kulshan have carried Chinook Jargon names.

A Chinook language word descriptive of any plant whose leaves were smoked, but especially the trailing shrub arctostaphylos uva-ursi, still commonly known as kinnikinnik or bearberry.

A standard greeting, serving for how are you?, good day, or good bye.

Kumtux (also commatux and other spellings)
To know, to understand. When Lewis and Clark spoke English to Concomly, Chief of the Lower Chinooks, in 1805, he replied "waket commatux" ("I don't understand".) Apparently he hoped that these strange newcomers at least spoke the Jargon, if not his own language. Incidentally, these particular words entered the Chinook Jargon from the Nootkan or Wakashan languages hundreds of miles to the north.

From the French for scissors. Often the articles la or le were combined with their nouns when French words were annexed into Chinook Jargon. France never colonized the Northwest Coast, but the large number of French Canadians employed by the fur trading Hudson Bay Company had a strong influence on Jargon vocabulary.

Moxt La Push
From the Chinook language for two and the French word for mouth, this was the Chinook Jargon name for the place where the White and Green Rivers joined together before the early 20th century diversion dam. The Whulshootseed or Puget Sound Salish name for the same place is Ilalco.

A word of uncertain origin and varied meanings, including food, to eat, a meal, to bite, or feast. In combination, it is even more useful for the Jargon speaker. Muckamuck chuck means to drink water, halo muckamuck means famine, and Jesus yaka muckamuck describes the Christian holy communion. Such varied meanings show how the small vocabulary of Chinook Jargon was used to cover a wide range of situations, and how important the context of each word was to clear communication.

Oahut (also ooahut or wayhut)
From the Chinook (lower Columbia River) language, meaning road, way, or path. Explorer Samuel Hancock, looking for coal deposits and farmland in east King County in the early 1850s, speaks of following his Native American guides on an "old oahut" toward Snoqualmie Pass. By the mid 19th century, most European Americans in Washington knew enough of the Jargon to deal with Native traders, guides, laborers, and others with whom they had business.

This well-known Jargon word for anything strong or able, according to at least one source, comes from the Salish language family. The Salish languages include Whulshootseed, the original language of the White River Valley, as well as many languages from here to the Vancouver-Victoria area. Skookum may be related to qwiqw, a Northern Puget Sound word meaning strong in body. This is a good example of Chinook Jargon's simplicity compared with primary Native languages. In "real" Puget Sound Salish there is a separate word for strong in body in the Southern Puget Sound area, as well as words meaning strong like a sturdy watertight basket, able to work without becoming weary, and yet a different term for strong flavor, such as strong coffee!

From the Nootkan or Wakashan languages of Vancouver Island, meaning a chief, boss, leader, or anything large or superior of its kind. Examples of its use include tyee sammon (King Salmon), saghalie tyee (God, literally Chief Above), and tyee kopa Washington for the President of the United States. This is one of the best-known Chinook Jargon words, partly because of its long-time use as the title of the University of Washington yearbook.

Tillikum (also tillicum)
From the Chinook language of the lower Columbia River, meaning friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people. With a modifying word or two, tillicum is even broader in use. For example, ahnkuttie tillicums means ancestors, huloima tillicums means strangers or different people, and hiyu tillikums identifies a crowd. Since the early 1960s, the Hewitt family has operated a popular tourist attraction called Tillicum Village, based on Native American dancing and salmon dinners, on Blake Island in Puget Sound.

From the Calipooia language (of western Oregon,) meaning to earn, control, convince, overcome, or triumph. Now used (with little realization of its origin) as a term for a ladies'-choice school dance.

From the French word sauvage, for savage. This was the general term for Native Americans during the fur trade era and later, and indicates the amount of respect many Europeans and settlers had for their indigenous neighbors and business partners.

Of uncertain origin, a name for the native root vegetable sagittaria latifolia, an important traditional food source for some tribes. The term was later applied to regular garden potatoes (which are of Peruvian origin) as well.

Kenneth (Greg) Watson