On Language and Speechlessness

Ten days ago, my mother and I visited the museum of the Squaxin Island Tribe at their small reservation just outside Olympia.  The museum is an impressive facility, designed to spatially represent the seven native groups that lived around seven nearby saltwater inlets.  There was a lot to learn, but one thought in particular has captured my attention. The 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek was the instrument through which the expansive lands of the Squaxin Island, Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes were ceded to the US government in exchange for reservations and hunting/fishing rights.  That treaty was not negotiated in the peoples’ primary Lushootseed languages. Instead, it was negotiated in the Chinook Jargon, a limited intertribal trade language made up of several hundred words. Opinions differ regarding how much nuance could be expressed using the Chinook Jargon. In any case, the museum exhibit appears to put it mildly when stating that the Chinook Jargon was “inadequate to convey the complex issues of treaty making.” After ten days of reflection, I still don’t know what to say about this injustice.  In fact, I find myself basically speechless. I know that silence is not a good trait for a blogger . . . but in this case, perhaps it’s best to let the history speak for itself.

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For more information on the museum, check out: http://www.squaxinislandmuseum.org/