Skip to content

Duncan missionary created a Chinook Jargon dictionary

You never know what you're going to turn up when you surf for information on the Internet. Recently, in researching the history of the Methodist Mission House on Kenneth Street for a history of heritage homes and buildings of the Cowichan Valley, I found an intriguing reference to the Rev. Charles Montgomery Tate.

I've written about him before and probably saw this same reference but it didn't register at the time. I'm referring to one of Tate's more ambitious projects, a dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, that mixedbag of languages used for a century as a simplified means of communication between whites and First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest.

Published by M.W. Waitt, Victoria, in 1889, Tate's slender volume (only 30 pages) is entitled Chinook as Spoken by the Indians of Washington Territory, British Columbia and Alaska: For the Use of Traders, Tourists and Others Who Have Business Intercourse with the Indians: Chinook-English, English-Chinook.

His isn't the only Chinook Jargon dictionary, my copy having been published by T.N. Hibben & Co., also of Victoria, in 1931. But the fact that it uses the same subtitle as Tate's makes me believe that it's really his book reprinted without acknowledging the author. A suspicion reinforced by the fact that the Lord's Prayer,

in jargon, appears on the last page. Whatever the case, this English-born Methodist missionary arrived in Duncan in 1899 after previous postings as a lay minister working with Native peoples in Nanaimo, Vancouver and Chilliwack. Tate's one of those rare gems for historians, a pioneer who kept detailed diaries, as the late chronicler Bill Owens rejoiced when researching his history of the Duncan United Church in the late 1960s. From Tate's diaries, kept at the British Columbia Provincial Archives, we know that he and his wife arrived in Duncan, June 15, 1899.

Their reception was less than warm: "No one met us or offered help. An Indian told us we were not wanted, as the Indians were all good. A day later this man came and expressed sorrow for his remark and promised to attend services."

October 11, Tate "bought two lots through Mr. Whittome, Real Estate, for $225 for a Mission House. Mr. David Spencer [wealthy Victoria department store owner] paid for them."

By December, he had men excavating the site, then set a Mr. Williams to work. The 29th of that month was the great day that Mrs. Tate "laid the corner-stone and in the cavity were placed copies of the Colonist, the Guardian [Duncan didn't have its own newspaper in 1899] and Conference Reports.

The Rev. and Mrs. Duncan departed Duncan in 1910. By all indications, they were warmly regarded and highly respected for their work among the Cowichan Tribes. Among his legacies, besides that of the Duncan Mission: two day schools and a night school, a fishermen's union, a grist mill, a printed vocabulary of the Cowichan (Hul'qumi'num) tongue, and a dictionary and hymnal in Chinook. Completed in March 1900, the Mission

House is significant in that it predated Duncan's incorporation as a city by 12 years. By then missionary efforts had been moved to Koksilah and in 1922 the Duncan Mission property was sold to Dr. Cornhill for $2,470. The old structure served as his office and for a time as a public health centre.

At the time of Mr. Muenter's article in the Colonist, the three men demolishing the Mission House had found some old photographs and copies of the local Leader and Victoria papers, but no time capsule. There's no mention of its being found in Duncan United Church records during research for an update of Mr. Owens' book in 2005.

But back to Chinook Jargon, which takes its name from a tribe that lived on the Columbia River in the American Northwest. In the late 1700s, when the traders of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Co. and the North West Co. set up shop in the Oregon Territory, they found the Chinook language to be tongue-tying for English and French speaking employees. So they coined a hybridized jargon of French-Metis, English, Spanish and Chinook.

It worked so well that, within 10 years, it had become the language of choice between traders and native tribes throughout Oregon and Washington Territories. It advanced throughout much of the future province of British Columbia after the Hudson's Bay Co. absorbed the North West Co. Consisting of fewer than 500 words, Chinook served well until English became the common communicator. It has been described as a Pidgin English, "an amalgam of sounds derived from different locations". Modern-day linguists have determined that the famous trade jargon is composed, roughly, of 10 per cent Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), 15 per cent English, 15 per cent Métis French and 50 per cent Old Chinook "with a sprinkling of words from Cree and Ojibway".

Numerous Chinook terms and expressions are with us yet and some grace our maps. For example, skookumchuck, meaning a body of saltwater and skookum, strong; tyee, meaning chief or someone of importance (which isn't given in the Hibben dictionary).

Then we have such fascinating holdovers as: tilikum (friend); bed and boat (exactly what they mean, some of the English terms used); kamas (the native plant camas whose edible root was a food staple for Natives); klahow-ya, greetings; klootchman, woman; ma-ma, mother; man, man; Mesachie, bad, wicked; moon, moon; muck-a-muck, food; nose, nose or point of land; papa, father; potlatch, the native ceremony that involves the mass distribution of gifts; salal, the native berry bush; Si-wash, Indian; tenas, small, not much, a child; tik-tik, watch; puss-puss, cougar! Some of them, when you see the English definition, bring a smile. I was particularly intrigued by Scotty, the word for crazy, which also applied to lunatic asylum a.k.a. Scotty House. This has to have originated in Victoria in the 1860s when a mentally troubled pioneer of this name was forever in trouble with the police or in jail. But I've already told you that story.

Kla-how-ya, tilikum!