J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Parsing Little Turtle’s Speech

Last month the Aacimotaatiiyankwi blog of the Myaamia (Miami) community shared an interesting conversation about the records from an 1795 treaty conference.

Representatives of the Myaamia (Miami) and other Native nations and of the U.S. government met in Fort Greenville in the part of the Northwest Territory that became Ohio. Gen. Anthony Wayne had won the Battle of Fallen Timbers almost a year before, and the Jay Treaty had deprived the Native alliance of support from Britain.

The Myaamia leader Mihšihkinaahkwa or Little Turtle (c. 1747-1812, shown here) made a speech that survives in four English forms:
  • The official report of the U.S. government published in the American State Papers.
  • The diary of U.S. military surgeon Dr. John F. Carmichael (1761-1837).
  • A brief report from John Askin, Jr., a British and Ottawa trader held prisoner by the Americans.
  • A translation of the official English text into Miami, seeking to recreate the original a century later, which was then translated back into English.
The blog also hosted a conversation about those different texts among scholars George Ironstack, Hunter Lockwood, David Costa, Daryl Badwin, and Cameron Shriver. The comparison illuminates some facts about the Myaamia situation in 1795 and about language. For example:
George Ironstrack: Gabriel Godfroy’s [doubly translated] version strikes me as a straight up translation from the English he was provided. We know there is a major language shift between Little Turtle’s time (ca. 1795) and Gabriel Godfroy (ca. 1890). Not that Godfroy wouldn’t have understood Little Turtle’s speech, but I don’t think it tells us a lot about the actual words Mihšihkinaahkwa spoke on that day or the oratorical style he might have used for that circumstance.

For the American State Papers version, we know that William Wells was the interpreter and so I tend to trust the interpretation at a pretty high degree on account of his level of fluency and relationship with Little Turtle, and we also see them working hand in glove politically, which helps me to trust the initial translation, at least. . . .

Cameron Shriver: In the John Carmichael version, I’m struck by how similar it is to the American State Papers version. They almost fully agree, but there are some interesting details in the Carmichael version. “Open your ears and I will tell you where they live,” he says. “The marks of my forefather’s houses are yet plain to be seen. … The Potawatomis live on the St. Joseph and the Wabash, the Ottawas live at ‘blank,’ the Ojibwes live on ‘blank,’ and there are other place names that Carmichael apparently could not write down. Little Turtle is saying explicitly where the Ottawas and Ojibwes and Potawatomis live, and Carmichael just doesn’t know what those words mean or Wells is not translating them from the Miami names. . . .

David Costa: I do wonder whether Godfroy put something into his translation that’s not immediately evident, that might not have been characteristic of his normal speech. You know, there was an oratorical style. There might have been some subtle things about how Godfroy translated this that might have been harking back to “well I kind of remember when I was a kid when people would make speeches.” Maybe he tried to throw in a few old-fashioned turns of phrase into it, like [Thomas Wildcat] Alford did when he translated the Shawnee Bible.
One phrase that appears in both of the detailed contemporaneous sources is “any white man who wore a hat.” This might be a bit redundant because the scholars agree that an early term for white people in Miami and other languages of the area was “people who wear hats.” Notably, the back-translation of the late 1800s doesn’t use that language, suggesting the description no longer held power.

TOMORROW: Defining territory.

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