Friday, September 28, 2012

Nesika Tillicum Chris Stevens, Memaloost Libya.

Chris Stevens was the American ambassador to Libya who was murdered in a jihadist atrocity in Benghazi September 11. Across Libya, Stevens' murder prompted thousands of the Libyans he loved  to take to the streets in anti-jihadist demonstrations, in upwellings of shame and grief. Less widely noticed is the outpouring of tributes that have been coming from across Indian country, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. Stevens was born a child of the Chinook Tribe in Oregon.
British Columbia Grand Chief Ed John: “That someone like the late Ambassador Stevens. . . that someone of his stature and calibre comes from a small group of Indigenous people – is a tribute to his family, his people and certainly all Native Americans.” The Sto:lo leader Ernie Crey, a dear old friend of mine, got the ball rolling. “I knew about him before he was killed, because I look around for Aboriginal or Native American people that are making their way,” said Ernie. “It was a shock. I can only imagine what his family feels – they must be in terrible straights. I know what it’s like to lose family members, but nothing quite like what his family is experiencing.”
If there were ever such a thing as a blue-blooded American, it would be Chris Stevens. He was a direct descendant of the great tribal leader Concomly, the senior chief of the far-flung Chinook Confederacy who welcomed the American explorers Lewis and Clark to the Columbia River in 1805. But Chief John noted the many "cultural, linguistic and family connections" that reach well into Canada, and it's worth paying attention to that. 
The tongue that ended up being the language of the contemporary Chinook Tribe was once universally familiar to British Columbians. Yako yiem halo kliminawhit (this is a true story): North of the 49th parallel, Wawa, or Lelang, or Chinook, was a creole that emerged from a sort of inter-tribal argot that went on to be heavily relied upon throughout Canada's west coast as a trading jargon. It is said to have been the street language of Vancouver before the Great Fire of 1886. 

With French and English words grafted like branches onto a multilingual aboriginal trunk, Chinook was the name given to the "language" of the multicultural salmon cannery culture that once prevailed from the Washington-Oregon border to the mouth of the Nass River on B.C's north coast. Years ago I co-authored a book on the subject, with the poet Charles Lillard. 
The language lingers in words we still speak on the West Coast. Skookum (great), clooshe (good), klahanie (outdoors), illahie (country) - the words pop up like sensations from a linguistic phantom limb. In the same way there was something unmistakable about Chris Stevens, something about his bravery, that summons the dim memory of a great and shared thing about what we once were. Nowadays it is exceedingly difficult to put it into words. 
Yako mamook kopet. It ended, and konoway chako kwann, everywhere it was quiet. Kopet snass, halo moosum. Except for the sleepless rain. But it lingers, and it is worth remembering, if only as some small tribute to Chris Stevens, in a faraway dialect of a language that members of his proud and grieving family will understand.


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