Sunday, August 5, 2012

Back from the dead

The Chetco people, hunter-gatherers, inhabited nine villages near the mouth of the Chetco River (the river is named after them and not the other way around) in south coastal Oregon, speaking approximately the same Athabascan language as the Rogue River Indians to the east and the Tolowa to the south. Originally they had been one of the largest groups on the coast, with a population of 1000 or more, but their numbers began declining with the advent of the whites, and especially the Gold Rush.
Chetco people, 1855. Illustration (via Wikipedia) from The Rogue River Indian War and its aftermath, 1850-1980 by E. A. Schwartz, 1997.
In the fall of 1853, a settler named A.F. Miller showed up with an interest in starting a business ferrying passengers across the Chetco, just a quarter mile upstream from the ocean; but the land he claimed for the purpose was occupied by two Indian villages, whose populations were not very enthusiastic about the project anyway (ferrying the river was traditionally their monopoly). Miller threatened to destroy the villages if they did not concede, and at dawn on February 15 1854, in one of the key atrocities of the Rogue River Wars, his own hired Indian mercenary thugs set about methodically burning down the Chetco lodges and shooting the people dead as they ran outdoors from the fire; 23 Indian men and several women were killed.

Miller was arrested but set free on the orders of a local justice of the peace who held that the evidence against him was insufficient and that the attack was in any event justified (how he could tell it was justified if there was insufficient evidence to show that it had taken place the justice did not explain). The Chetko were removed to the new Table Rock Reservation, and eventually to the Coast Reservation, 1.1 million acres of coastal land that has dwindled since, to the 3,666 acres of today's little Siletz Reservation, populated by a miscellany of people speaking languages of the Athabaskan, Hokan, Penutian, Sahaptin, and Salishan families.

In 1954—just a century after the Rogue River Wars—in line with the delicately named "Indian Termination Policy" of those days, Congress passed the series of Termination Acts ending the special relationships of the federal government with various tribes in Wisconsin, Oregon, and California, and the tribes of the Coast Reservation ceased, officially, to exist. But this most catastrophic phase was over in 20 years, when Oregon's representatives and senators began agitating to restore the Siletz groups, and on November 18 1977 the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians reverted to their sovereign status, and in 1995, naturally, the Chinook Winds Casino opened up for business.

The Confederated Tribes constitute a single tribe in sort of the same way the United States make up one big state. Linguistically this has not been a big problem for their identity, as English had already almost entirely taken over; there were few people who knew how to speak any of the Siletz languages, and at least one of them, Chetko, had already been declared dead.

Which is why it gives me great pleasure to report that Chetko is back, as announced in today's New York Sunday Times:
“We don’t know where it’s going to go,” said Bud Lane, a tribe member who has been working on the online Siletz Dee-ni Talking Dictionary for nearly seven years, and recorded almost all of its 10,000-odd audio entries himself. In its first years the dictionary was password protected, intended for tribe members.
Since February, however, when organizers began to publicize its existence, Web hits have spiked from places where languages related to Siletz are spoken, a broad area of the West on through Canada and into Alaska. That is the heartland of the Athabascan family of languages, which also includes Navajo. And there has been a flurry of interest from Web users in Italy, Switzerland and Poland...


listen n. feather hat(s)

It's beautifully done, too, with an understanding of the requirements of linguistics and the needs of speaker alike; with the simplest possible writing system and the individual words displaying in semantic field arrays (somewhat like a combination thesaurus and paradigm grammar: type "hat" and you get entries for the general concept of "hat" and three specialized kinds of hats; type "stand" and you get "I am standing", "we are standing", and "I am standing it up", "he is standing it up", etc.).

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