Volume 11, Number 12 February 20, 2004

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Library gets rare, valuable Kamloops Wawa publication

By Michelle Boulton

From left, History Prof. and Canada Research Chair Jim Miller, Special Collections Librarian Janet Caterall and History Assistant Prof. Keith Carlson check out the display of the Kamloops Wawa in the Beyond the Link gallery in the main library.

Photo by Lawrence McMahen

The U of S has recently acquired what History Assistant Prof. Keith Carlson describes as a completely overlooked historical record. The library bought one of the largest and most complete runs in existence of an important but obscure 19th-century newsletter called the Kamloops Wawa.

“It’s the queerest newspaper in the world,” says Carlson. The majority of the text is written in a shorthand version of Chinook jargon, which only a few thousand people could ever read. Today, there are only two people in the world who can competently translate it.

Chinook jargon, a trade language (or pidgin) was once spoken by an estimated 100,000 people along the west coast from Oregon to Alaska. With more than 100 Aboriginal languages spoken in the area, it was one of the most diverse linguistic regions in the world. Chinook jargon evolved as a way of bridging the communication gap created by this diversity.

Derived from various Aboriginal languages, and later English and French, this jargon was widely spoken by natives, traders, and settlers, but could not be easily translated to written form. As a means of bringing literacy to Aboriginal people, Catholic missionaries in the late 1800s developed a phonetic shorthand that could accurately represent the jargon.

Eventually, most of the native population learned to speak English, and Chinook jargon fell into disuse. The language may have disappeared altogether had the written legacy of the Catholic missionaries not remained. The Wawa, which is Chinook jargon for ‘chat’, is an important record of that legacy.

The newsletter was published by Fr. Jean-Marie Raphael LeJeune out of the back room of a church on the Kamloops reserve between 1891 and 1923. Intended primarily for the local Aboriginal audience, most of the content was written in Chinook jargon with some translation into English and French. At its peak, The Wawa had a circulation of about 2,000 copies and was read as far away as France.

LeJeune and Bishop Paul Durieu are credited with the adaptation of Duployan shorthand to Chinook jargon. Rather than trying to teach Aboriginal people to speak and read a new language, Carlson says they believed it would be easier to teach them to read and write a language they already understood. However, the roman alphabet did not adapt itself very well to the spelling of Chinook jargon.

Pages from the Kamloops Wawa show an engraving and the phonetic shorthand developed by Catholic missionaries for Chinook jargon.

The adapted shorthand works well for writing jargon and is easy to learn because it is phonetically based. Despite LeJeune’s belief that Chinook jargon would be the language to lend economic agency to Aboriginal people, Carlson explains it fell out of use by the mid-1900s.

“Nobody paid any attention to it,” says Carlson. The Kamloops Wawa was just an obscure local newsletter until its subtle political role was discovered. In the newsletter, LeJeune actively sought an Aboriginal audience and focused on local and national native concerns. Carlson calls it an advocacy journal.

It was Carlson who discovered the Wawa collection for sale on an Internet site and brought it to the library’s attention. While Janet Caterall, special collections librarian, says they were “extremely excited” about the collection, they were having difficulty generating the $15,000 necessary to buy it. It was ultimately made available from Prof. Jim Miller’s Canada Research Chair for Native-Newcomer Relations funding.

The library has 141 copies of the Wawa, which was published regularly until 1904. What makes these even more exciting is that they are said to be the original copies belonging to LeJeune himself. In fact many of the issues have notes in the margins that are believed to have been written by LeJeune.

Caterall says the library is now looking to find the 30 missing issues that will complete its collection and the additional 250 issues that were published sporadically between 1905 and 1923. They are also in the process of acquiring some of LeJeune’s journals, dictionaries, and vocabularies.

An exhibition about the Wawa will be on display in the Beyond the Link section of the main library until March 26. A reception to celebrate the acquisition will be held Wed., Feb. 25 from 3-5 p.m. in Rm. 154. The display features issues of the Kamloops Wawa, enlarged digital images of the text, translations of some issues, related background materials, and historic photographs.

The library also holds a complete collections of the Oblate Mission Reports to the Vatican from every part of the world from 1862 to 1974. It is one of only three complete collections in Canada.

“When you put these two records together, it makes the U of S a very important place if you are researching Aboriginal history or literacy, or the role of missionaries and their relationships with Aboriginal people,” says Carlson. “Saskatchewan is getting a reputation in North America as a centre of excellence on the history of Aboriginal people.”

Miller says the University’s latest acquisition is a valuable source for research in history, native studies, religious studies, and linguistics, to name just a few. “The Wawa offers a unique perspective that embraces a lot of activities.”

Somewhat enviously, he says, “Historians always dream of stumbling across a stash of long lost letters that no one has ever used before, and that is essentially what Keith Carlson has done.”


For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca


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