The Douglas Treaties Re-Jargonized

The Douglas Treaties on display in the Royal BC Museum

Chinook Jargon played a vital role in the negotiation of treaties throughout the Pacific North-West. Though the government of British Columbia failed to negotiate treaties for much of the province, leaving most of it now lying on unceded territory, there were a few treaties signed under the government of James Douglas often referred to as the “Douglas Treaties“. These treaties, which are sharply criticized and disputed for a number of reasons, deal with lands on Vancouver Island. Being the only common language between government officials and First Nation communities, Chinook Jargon was the medium through which these treaty negotiations were conducted.

With this in mind, I thought today I would like to try to translate one of those treaties back into Chinook Jargon to see how much sense could be made out of it. This isn’t the first time someone has done this with a treaty (see David Robertson’s series on the “Treaty of Point no Point” here), but it might be the first time someone has tried it with one of the Douglas Treaties.

The treaty we are looking at today was signed in 1850, a very early date in the history of CW in BC and before Chinook Jargon took off in many parts of British Columbia, especially in the Interior. From my understanding though, Chinook would have been well understood at this time around Victoria where this treaty was negotiated.

Before we begin, I’d like to note that the Chinook Jargon I know is more representative of what was spoken in BC around the 1890s onward, well after European concepts would have been introduced into Indigenous communities and I don’t know how well it represents what was being spoken in 1850 in and around Victoria. After the translation, I’d like to point out a few times where this might play a role in how the treaty would be worded and how this might change its interpretation. I really have more questions than answers here though, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

See the English text of the treaty here, it is not actually a very long. Below, I am using the BC Learners’ Orthography, which you can read about here.

Alright, let’s begin:

Tichamitsa-tilikum – okok ilahi mitlait kanamokst kopa ikta tk’op-man mamook-neim eskwaimalt pi pointalburt

Tloosh-nanich: nesaika, tichamitsa taiyi pi tilikum, mamook-ts’um nesaika neim kopa okok peipa eipril 29 1850.¹ Nesaika patlach² kopa Jeims Duglas, haiyas taiyi kinchoch man pi hudsonbei man, kanawei nesaika ilahi mitlait kanamokst kopa ikta tk’op-man mamook-neim Eskwaimaltharbor³ pi Pointalburt pi wuẖt nesaika patlach ikta mitlait kanamokst kopa ikta tk’op-man mamook-neim Streitsofwandifyooka pi ḵ’o’ 10 mails⁴ saiyaa, kopa okok haiyoo mountin mitlait kopa ikta tk’op man maook-neim Sanicharm.

Nesaika tloosh kumtuks pos nesaika pi nesaika tenaas, pi tlaska tenaas ets.⁵ – tlaska kwanisum mitlait okok ilahi ḵaẖ mitlait nesaika town pi okok nesaika tloosh-ilahi mitlait insaid kopa ḵalaẖan. Wik-lili tk’op man mamook-ḵansiẖ⁷ nesaika ilahi. Wuẖt nesaika tloosh kumtuks pos nesaika sel kanawei ẖuloima nesaika ilahi pi chako tk’op-man tlaska ilahi kanawei pos-kwanisum. Pi tloosh pos nesaika kwanisum hunt ḵaẖ heilo mitlait tk’op-man pi mamook-pish kakwa anḵati. 27 pound pi 10 shiling nesaika tl’ap¹⁰ kopa kanawei okok ilahi nesaika sel.

kopa okok, nesaika mamook nesaika ts’um¹¹ kopa okok peipa, eipril 29 1850.

1. Dates are always given as in English in Chinook Jargon documents both in Chinuk Pipa and elsewhere. How well would the chiefs present in 1850 have known the European calendar system?

For that matter, how well might the act of signing your ‘name’ (they’re just X marks next to their names really) to a treaty paper even be understood if it wasn’t explained in detail beforehand? Was it considered as binding and final by all the chiefs and people as it was by the government?

2. Do you have a better way to express “surrender”? I thought about using “sel / selum” and maybe adding a “pos-kwanisum”.

3. During negotiations I wonder how the ‘tk’op-man’ names for these places were translated, if they were translated at all. If Indigenous place names were used, how well did they correlate with the tk’op-man names?

4. “mail(s)” is a very common word in Chinook Jargon by the 1890s onwards, but I doubt that in 1850 everybody would have been as familiar with what a mile was. How then might they have translated this if not with miles? If I had to make an educated guess, I think that they would say how long this would take in a journey by canoe. What do you think?

5. I used ‘ets.’ (=etc.) here because it’s commonly used in chinuk pipa documents from the 1890s onwards, but I know it likely wasn’t being used in 1850s. I’m sure this would be easily expressed without it anyway.

6. “tloosh-ilahi” means hyper-literally “good-land”, but really denotes any open field, clearing, prairie, farm, etc.. I could see where using “tloosh-ilahi” here might allow for a wider range of interpretations than the English ‘fields’. Read more about this here.

7. Do you have a better translation of “survey”?

8. How do you think they expressed ‘unoccupied lands’? I translated it this way because these lands had long been and currently still were ‘occupied’ by Indigenous people.

9. For reference, this is about $5,000 CAD today.

10. How in control the chiefs were in negotiating the amount might change the word choice here.

11. Remember they just made their mark with an X, they did not actually write out their names themselves.

In general, I think this exercise goes to show that Chinook Jargon can easily be used to express everything said in this treaty with a good degree of accuracy – the bigger question is, however, whether or not all parties understood and understood in the same way the concepts being presented both in the treaty and in the circumstances surrounding it, especially at this early date.

I would be interested to see what you think though – how much do you understand? Also, if you would like to translate this treaty yourself, I’d love to see your interpretation!

One thought on “The Douglas Treaties Re-Jargonized

  1. This is excellent work. Even truly fluent speakers of Chinuk Wawa can’t easily translate Settler legal concepts, plus there would’ve been few mutually understood place names around Victoria circa 1850. Compass directions may also have been a murky area. On top of all this, cultural differences were enormous, such that it’s unlikely Native folks believed they were permanently giving away land…

    Liked by 1 person

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