December 21st, 2023. William Celestin.

 Snass Sessions 12.21.2023: William Celestin, no date1

David Douglas Robertson, PhD

Consulting linguist, Spokane, WA, USA 


Visit Juli Baumler’s webpage of “ Chinuk Pipa ” (BC alphabet) resources.

Background information on this writer:

The prolific William Celestin of Salmon Arm (husband of Adele), an active Chinuk pipa writer for longer than any other known Indigenous person, wrote the known letters [007], [020], [032], [034], [036], [044], [045], [056], [062]. 

In the area where he lived, note the place name Celista, BC, on Shuswap Lake (BCRA 2007:59). 

  • Kamloops Wawa connections: 

William Celestin worked on the altar of the new Shuswap church (#14, 6 March 1892), 

subscribes (#24, 1 May 1892), 

has written to Father St. Onge back east (#30, 12 June 1892; #199c, December 1901), 

is watchman of the eucharist / a proselyte at Salmon Arm (#112, January 1894), 

his wife Adèle has died (#144, September 1896), 

winner of a diploma in a shorthand competition (#159, December 1897), 

a.k.a. Big William, is about 50 years old (#257/’157’, December 1915), 

has a chapel at his place (#261, April 1916), 

at Head Lake for holiday celebrations (#’2’, April 1918).

He never seems to be referred to as Taii Wiam, perhaps because the chief at Williams Lake was widely known by that name. 

William Celestin was a Secwépemc (“Shuswap”) Salish man from south-central British Columbia. 

There’s usually little or no punctuation in the Indigenous-written letters, so what you see here is pretty much my additions of commas, periods, and so on. 

If you see [SIC] in square brackets it shows possible mistakes in the writing; other material [in square brackets] is inferred and added by me. 

*Asterisked* material shows an uncertain reading of the Chinuk Pipa writing. 

Underlined material is in other languages than Chinook Jargon. 

Anything < in angled brackets > is non-Chinuk Pipa, i.e. written as standard English in the original document. 

The notation (Ø) shows that you can understand a clause to contain either “silent IT”or a “silent preposition”. 

I have put line breaks between every clause-containing sentence, and added punctuation, to help the reader. (But I’ve preserved each writer’s own idiosyncratic punctuation marks.) I’m sometimes experimenting with extra indentation to show the existence of subordinate clauses. (And to reflect the flow of the speaker’s thoughts.) 

Many thanks to all of you who participated in this Snass Session! 


The Letter

The letter, transcribed & with a suggested translation:

Iht man2 iaka mamuk-pipa3 kopa naika.4 one man he make-writing to me

‘This one fella wrote to me.’ 

Iaka tiki komtaks, iaka tilikom kopa iakwa, 

he want know, his friend over here,‘He wanted to know, (about) his friends over here,’ 

spus-kata:5 spus tlus, spus klahawiam, kopa if-how: if good, if pitiful, in ‘how they might be doing: if it’s good, if it’s miserable, in’ 

kanawi-ikta; kopa kol, kopa sno, kopa sik. 

every-thing; in cold, in snow, in sickness. ‘every way; with the cold, with the snow, with being sick.’ 

Ukuk iaka tiki komtaks.Pi naika ilo6 mitlait iaka 

this he want know. but I not have his ‘This is what he wanted to know. But I don’t have his’ 


Willam Celestin consistently spells Chinuk Wawa’s man as min in the Chinuk Pipa alphabet. This implies that he pronounced the word like [mɛn]. This in turn suggests 2 things – that he had a Secwépemc accent (the sound [ɛ] is more common in his Indigenous language than [ɑ] is), and that he had plenty of contact with Settlers and the English that they spoke. We can evaluate this idea as we move further along in his letter.3

There is more than one valid way to understand the writer’s < mamuk pipa >. You could think of it as literally mamuk ‘make’ + pipa ‘a letter’. Or you could see it as a single verb made up of mamuk- ‘Active’ + pipa ‘letter/writing’, i.e. ‘to write’. Note that pipa in the Northern Dialect usually means ‘writing; a written thing’ rather than its English source’s meaning of ‘paper’. 4

Kevin Pittle in our Zoom session pointed out that this document lacks the usual starting line telling the date and place of writing. This is a clue…5

Spus-kata: many Indigenous speakers of the Northern Dialect have the same habit that we can see early in the history of the language, around Fort Vancouver in the 1830s – they add the ‘Hypothetical’ marker pus, or this variant spus, before “WH-question” words. (The words for ‘who, what, why, when, how, how much’, and so on.) *Another note: the variant spus is usually associated with English-speaking Settlers, who appear to have felt that Chinook Jargon’s pus ‘if; Hypothetical’ was quite similar to informal English ‘suppose…; supposing…’6

Although I’ve regularized the Jargon spellings, as usual, to reflect those in the newspaper Kamloops Wawa (which everyone tried to stick to), we should point out that William Celestin tends to this word as clearly ilu, rather than ilo. This is another features that suggests his Indigenous-language accent.

nim7 kopa lisak.8 Tlus maika mamuk-hilp9 naika kopa lis[a]k. 

name for* bag.good you make-help me for* bag. ‘address for the (mail)bag*. Please help me for the (mail)bag*.’ 

Naika mash pipa kopa iaka:Ukuk man iaka 

I send letter to him:this man his ‘I’m sending a letter to him: This man’s’ 

nim Shims wach-man10 kopa Skrawlich:11 

name James watch-man at Scowlitz: ‘name is James the watchman at Scowlitz:’ 

Alta kopa iakwa iaka12 chako tlus.13Ilo 

now over here they come well.not ‘Right now over here they’re getting along all right.No-’ 

klaksta sik, kanawi nsaika mitlait kopa Samin A[rm] [pi]* 14

anyone sick, all we at Salmon Arm [and]*

‘body’s sick, all of us that live here at Salmon Arm, [including]*’ 


Nim here seems clearly to mean ‘address’. See the following footnote, and notice that the writer goes on to tell the actual name of the person he wants to write to!8

We don’t instantly know what William Celestin is referring to with the Jargon word lisak ‘bag, sack’. It appears to be related to letter-writing, and we might reasonably guess it to mean ‘envelope’. This is not definite: in the archives of Indigenous writing in Chinuk Pipa, envelopes are scarcely to be found. And few of the surviving letters show indications of having been folded to fit an envelope. (However, we do know a word for it from one of the Native writers, anmalup, and a couple of the Indigenous letters mention using stamp ‘stamps’ at the post office.) We can keep in mind that letter-writing, and the customs involved in it, were brand-new in these communities in the 1890s, so Chinook Jargon was trying to catch up with the necessary terminology. For example, people seem to have used the word nim ‘name’ to mean someone’s ‘address’ on a letter (which we see in this letter). In any event, for the time being the translation that seems most believable to me for this lisak is ‘mail bag’, partly because we know from K.W. that entire Indigenous communities would gather for an evening of letter-writing to other communities, and then send all those letters together, presumably in a sack and via rail. What are your thoughts? 9

An equally common synonym for mamuk-hilp is just plain hilp, both newly borrowed from English and unknown in the southern dialect.10

Wach-man was a recognized title for a sort of village policeman appointed by missionaries.11

Skrawlich = Scowlitz, a Stó:lō community on BC’s lower Fraser River. It’s unrelated to the Cowlitz Salish tribe near old Fort Vancouver in Washington, just as the Stó:lō community of Chehalis is unrelated to the Chehalis Salish tribe also near old Fort Vancouver. In both cases it seems Settlers transplanted their own knowledge of Native people near the Columbia River onto similar-sounding names to the north. 12

We could take this iaka (which prototypically means ‘she/he’) to be a Settler-type usage as ‘it’. (Which would normally be the “silent IT” pronoun, for a fluent speaker.) Possibly this would be another indication of William Celestin’s fairly significant exposure to English speakers. However, we’re able to take iaka as plural ‘they’, within the known rules of northern-dialect Jargon, so I have chosen that path for the moment. What do you think? 13

Chako tlus here strikes me as fairly clearly chako ‘to happen; to “be coming along” ’ with the adverb tlus ‘well’. It wouldn’t make sense to my mind to take this as chako-tlus ‘to get well, recover, heal, improve’. Compare my observations at footnote 3, and consider for yourself. 14

The presence of Itiin Batist here is puzzling. To try making sense of it, I’m hypothesizing the material missing at the right edge of the archival photocopy I’m working from includes pi ‘but/and’. Those involved in our Zoom session on this letter had a number of interesting suggestions about this issue. 

Itiin (/)* Batist.15 Naika Wiliam Silista. 

Etienne (/) Baptiste.I William Celestin. ‘Etienne (and)* Baptiste. I’m William Celestin.’ 

Potaha,16 papa Pir Lshyun.Adil iaka wawa potaha, papa Pir L[Shyun]. 

goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune.Adele she say goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune. ‘Goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune.Adele says goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune.’ 

Miri17 iaka wawa potaha, papa Pir Lshyun — naika tanas-klutsh[min]. 

Mary she say goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune – my little-woman. 

‘Mary says goodbye, father Pere Le Jeune – that’s my daughter.’ 

Klahawiam, kanawi liplit. 

goodbye, all priest. ‘Goodbye to all the priests.’ 

Naika Wiliam Silista. I William Celestin. ‘I’m William Celestin.’ 


Itiin Batist is written here, for no reason that’s immediately clear to us. By using the punctuation mark /, I’m suggesting an idea that we have here the northern-dialect habit of leaving out pi ‘and’ when listing things off, or when speaking of things or people that are seen as naturally occurring together. (A real and common example is that people say naika mama / naika papa for ‘my mom & (my) dad’.) We don’t yet know whether William Celestin was speaking of one person Itiin Batist (not known to me from Kamloops Wawa or the Indigenous letters), or of two, Itiin & Batist. 16

This is one common variant of the Secwepemctsín Salish salutation pútucw(e7) ‘goodbye’. It’s frequently used in the Chinuk Pipa letters. 17

While most of the colonial / baptismal names seen in this letter are French, due to being given by francophone priests, Miri is clearly [mɛri] from local English.