By Tracy J. Prince
I was one of many people nominating Tillicum for TriMet’s new bridge name and was thrilled when it was named a finalist. Most people are unaware of the pervasive use of Chinook Jargon in Portland’s first century and unaware of Portland’s profound Native-American history. Tillicum is a Jargon word that means “the people,” “friends” and also refers to ancestors (“ahnkuttie tillicums”). It’s important to honor Portland’s Native-American history in naming “the people’s bridge.”
Digitization of Oregonian archives is opening the floodgates – -to question previously accepted history. Now that we can do keyword searches in newspapers back to the 1850s, it’s becoming clear that Portland’s earliest historians recorded what they found significant (pioneers), and didn’t record what they found insignificant (Indian and Chinese residents). My research and research of others digging through such archival treasure troves is disproving the theory that native people were almost wiped out in the region by the 1840s when Portland was settled. I was shocked to find Oregonian stories of pioneers telling exact locations of large numbers of Indian residents in Portland. (I detailed this research in “Portland’s Slabtown,” including descriptions of an Indian village of “25-30 wigwams” and a “sweathouse” in NW Portland’s Johnson Creek Gulch.)
During the Depression, WPA researchers interviewed pioneers, with one describing Portland’s population in 1850 as 275 white residents and 1,000 Indian residents (500 living by Couch Lake — now parts of the Pearl District and Old Town/Chinatown — and another 500 living along the Willamette River near Jefferson Street). Other descriptions indicate that this Willamette River village extended south of Jefferson. Thus, Native Americans were living near the west side of TriMet’s bridge.
Until at least the 1870s, Oregon pioneers used Chinook Jargon on a daily basis. Most people had to know a bit of Jargon to get around. An 1853 Chinook Jargon Dictionary (published in Portland) shows that Jargon was often used to hire Indian laborers and for trade. Portland’s Native-American residents chopped wood, hauled water, carried heavy loads, transported passengers in canoes and delivered mail for Portland households and businesses. They also traded baskets, berries, kindling and salmon.
From the 1870s to the 1920s, Oregonian stories told of Indian trading encampments returning to the area around today’s Wallace Park in northwest Portland. Even though Johnson Creek was buried in 1889, Native Americans kept returning to the area near the native village that, until at least the late 1860s, remained in Johnson Creek Gulch. Tribal groups (such as Siletz, Warm Springs, Klickitat, Umatilla, and Grand Ronde families) set up seasonal trading camps and used Chinook Jargon in the trading process. Chinese vegetable farmers living nearby also used Jargon with Indians and traded with them in these encampments.
WPA pioneer interviews confirm pervasive use of Chinook Jargon. A wonderful interview with a 96-year-old woman (titled “Pioneer Life”) gives a glimpse of Oregonians bantering in Chinook Jargon as a way of exhibiting their pioneer credentials: “I us’d to talk jargon like a siwash. Once down at Gearhart some ladies wuz visitin’ me, an’ they c’d talk jargon too. We had lunch, an’ we wuzn’t to say anythin’ but in jargon. One of ‘em, Mrs. Vantine, wuz perty good, so I sed to her, ‘Potlatch nika mika seopose’ (give me your hat). First she looked kinda puzzled, an’ then, all at once she smiled an’ took off her hat an’ giv it to me.”
At pioneer reunions they spoke Jargon with each other to prove how early they arrived out west. Many Oregonians used Jargon in casual conversation–to add humor, whimsy or emphasis and to exhibit deep knowledge of Oregon’s history. A 1906 letter from George H. Himes (1844-1940) –a founding member of the Oregon Pioneer Association and the Oregon Historical Society–shows playful use of Jargon:
“Gentlemen: Tenas ahncutty mika potlatch hyou ‘Tyee Salmon.’ kopa hyass ahncutty Boston tillikums. Yah-ka hiyou muck-a-muck June 14. Yah-ka Boston tillikums kloch nanich okoke salmon, hyass kloshe muck-a-muck. Yah-ka Boston tillikums—Pioneers—hiyou wa-wa kopa mika; hiyou hee-hee. Mika tum-tum kopa Pioneers hyass kloshe—mika tum-tum hyass t’kop. Mercie! mercie!”
Since you may not have an interpreter handy, I give you a free translation of the above:
“A little while ago you gave a good lot of line king salmon to the old pioneers for their banquet on June 14. Those pioneers took a good look at those salmon, and remembered how good they were when nothing but salmon could be had for food. Those Boston men (all Americans were called “Boston” men, and Englishmen, or employes of the Hudson’s Bay Company were called “King George Men”) talked much about you, and felt very thankful to you for your kindness, and had a good time and much laughter as they recalled their old-time experiences. Your heart towards the pioneers is very good, and your heart is very white. Thank you! Thank you.”
In 1904 Jerry Powell’s father was 10 years old when he moved to SE 37th and Hawthorne. Jerry remembers his father telling stories of Portlanders often using Chinook Jargon in casual conversations in the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout his life, Jerry’s father used Jargon words like “muckamuck” (“big-wig” – also pronounced “mucketymuck”) and “skookum tyee” (“good salmon”) “Tyee” usually means chief, so this refers to king salmon.
Bill Failing (Oregon Historical Society Board president) remembers relatives saying “skookum” (“strong”, “good” or “excellent”). His cousin Bill Brewster, Jr., recalled his uncle James Failing teaching him “Chinook” (pronounced TCHinook not Shhhinook). When James wanted him to leave he would say what sounded like “Catawaba!” – which James said meant “scram” in Chinook. (It’s likely he was saying “klatawa”–“you’d better go”.) James Failing (1842-1920) arrived to Portland in 1853. He had direct contact with Portland’s Native-American residents and fondly used Jargon words throughout his life.
Called Chinook Wawa by Native Americans, Chinook Jargon was the Pacific Northwest’s trade language — with loan words from English French, and many Native languages. Tillicum is a loan word from Chinookan tribal groups along the lower Columbia River (Oregon and Washington). There is a deep (though mostly forgotten) history of Native Americans in Portland and a strong resonance with Chinook Jargon throughout Oregon. This is the people’s bridge. Let’s honor our region’s pioneer and Native-American history with a name that tells the people’s history.
Tracy Prince, PhD, is scholar in residence at PSU’s Portland Center for Public Humanities, author of “Portland’s Goose Hollow” and “Culture Wars in British Literature,” and co-author of “Portland’s Slabtown.”