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Not Fit To Print
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author
of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing
Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The
Collector, is now available.
Some of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary" columns are available here, with more on the way.
Boundaries August 2011
Photograph of flat twined back
Indian hemp weft, beargrass pattern green tree lichen dye,
Collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture,Spokane
In January of 1827, caught in the middle of a long winter
at Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia, naturalist David Douglas apparently
felt the strain of too many rainy days. “To pass away the time,”
he wrote, “I copied some notes of the Chenook tribe of Indians.”
That’s odd, I thought, when I recently chanced upon his remark.
In writing a book about Douglas’s stay in the Pacific Northwest,
my wife and I had looked through a wide variety of his papers, and lately
had done it all again while thinking about objects that might be part
of a museum exhibit focused on his work here. None of them contained
any separate discussion of Chinook or Coastal culture.
I wondered if those mysterious notes might be connected to a diary entry
Douglas penned a few months later, this time while riding in a fur trade
canoe far upstream in the North Columbia country. As French-Canadian
paddlers propelled the boat through the Arrow Lakes, singing their traditional
songs, a peevish Douglas complained that he was trying to work.
“Intended to have arranged a few words of the Chenook language,
but was molested out of my life by the men singing their boat-songs.”
Douglas had learned to speak Chinook jargon with the coastal families
who fed, guided, and provided him with plant information, but I had
never seen a word list. Any description of tribal culture, or dictionary
or Chinook jargon, however brief, would be an invaluable addition to
the understanding of lower Columbia. This was especially true because
a devastating malaria plague known as intermittent fever changed the
face of the region forever in the 1830s.
David Douglas is best known for the trees and flowering plants he sent
back to the London Horticultural Society in England, but he was a man
of many interests, and his letters, field journals, and later narrative
writings make it clear that he boxed up all kinds of things. During
the course of assembling information for our museum exhibit, we decided
it made sense to list not only those any inconclusive hints of missing
writings, but also any objects that he might have sent back to England
that were no longer accounted for.
For instance, in 1829, Douglas’s friend Dr. John Scouler delivered
a paper to the Zoological Society entitle “Remarks on the Form
of the Skull of the North American Indian,” a ghoulish treatise
that ticked off the measurements of two skulls Scouler stole from a
tribal graveyard on the lower river. Douglas was not with him at the
time, and in fact later wrote that his Chinookan friends admonished
for even knowing about the theft, and threatened Douglas with retribution
if anything like that ever happened again. Yet, only a few weeks before
Scouler delivered his paper, Douglas wrote to a mutual friend that “I
shall attend to all Scouler’s small inquires, and will get him
the Squeezing cradle.” (Douglas often underlined key parts of
his correspondence for emphasis). The published version of Scouler’s
paper included an illustration, with thanks to Mr. Douglas, of a Chinookan
headboard. It is one of the few known drawings attributed to Douglas,
and yet the whereabouts of this “squeezing cradle” remains
It seems likely that Douglas traded for the headboard during one of
his several visits to Willapa Bay, where he stayed with a headman named
Cockqua. “I received from him an assemblage of baskets, cups,
&c, and his own hat, with a promise that the maker (a little girl
twelve years of age, a relation of his own) would make me some hats
like the chief’s hats from England,” Douglas wrote after
a trip to the Bay in the summer of 1825. Only a few weeks later, back
at Fort Vancouver, Cockqua and his craftswoman relative made good on
Last night my Indian friend Cockqua arrived here from his tribe on the
coast, and brought me three of the hats made on the English fashion,
which I ordered when there in July; the fourth, which will have some
initials wrought in it, is not finished, but will be sent by the other
ship. I think them a good specimen of the ingenuity of the natives and
particularly also being made by the little girl, twelve years old, spoken
of when at the village. I paid one blanket (value 7 s.) for them, the
fourth included. We smoked; I gave him a dram and a few needles, beads,
pins, and rings as a present for the little girl.
The four hats, like the headboard, have disappeared. But it seems like
there should be enough other artifacts along with them to make up a
collection that would be on the record of some Scottish or British Museum.
“Before taking leave of my Indian friend,” Douglas said
in a later account, “I purchased from his people several articles
of wearing apparel, gaming articles, and things used in domestic economy,
for which I gave trinkets and tobacco.” In a separate plant account,
he provided some details about the gaming articles, describing them
as "gambling sticks of carved spirea shoots tipped with beaver
incisors." Anyone who follows stick game through summer powwows
knows that such an item would be of great spritual value to some family,
and would not have been traded lightly.
Not all of Douglas’s phantom collections came from Coast cultures.
In a letter to his mentor, William Jackson Hooker, he described a separate
box he was sending that contained interesting foods he had encountered
in the Interior: cambium bark stripped from ponderosa pine, breads from
biscuitroots of the Columbia Plateau, and cakes fashioned from baked
black tree lichen, the “moss bread” described by several
of the early fur traders. Douglas also included cordage and Indian “pouches”
made of beargrass among his gifts to Hooker.
Beargrass, I thought. Douglas had a special liking for this beautiful
mountain lily, with its plume of white flowers that emerge from a dense
clump of sharp-edged grass. That grass, colored purple around the base,
has long been a favorite for pattern weaving among women in both Coastal
and Plateau cultures. It was probably no accident that in August of
1826, while Douglas was visiting Kettle Falls, he traded with a party
of Kootenai people. When he packed his trunk for his return trip downstream
to Fort Vancouver, his kit included “…an Indian bag, of
curious workmanship, made of Indian Hemp, beargrass, and Eagle quills,
used for carrying roots and other such articles.”
The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane has in its collection
a Plateau flat twined bag woven from Indian hemp, with large green triangles
dyed with color obtained from a green tree lichen. Smaller dark triangles
in the bag, which flash maroon in the sunlight, are old, mellow beargrass,
expertly incorporated into the traditional design. The flat twined bag
at the MAC is more than a hundred years old. Except for the decorative
eagle quills, it perfectly matches the bag that Douglas collected here
almost two hundred years ago, shipped to his mentor in Glasgow, and
has been strangely out of circulation ever since. It’s hard not
to wonder whether there might be a chance that it is still lying around
somewhere in Great Britain.
Reprints of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary" columns are available here.
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