He Put the Gospel Into Gramalogues
Forty years ago Father Le Jeune began to teach shorthand to the Indians of the Thompson valley; now he edits the strangest newspaper in North America
B. A. MCKELVIE
A GES ago a savage, gifted with imagination, smeared the smooth side of a granite boulder with red ochre mixed with grease. Then, using a stick for a brush, he drew the outline of a tree. It delighted him, and his fellow tribesmen looked on in wonderment. Encouraged by their applause, he essayed to picture a tepee; then he found that by making two parallel waving lines he had conveyed to his friends the idea of a river. So, by gradual process, the art of pictography, or rock writing, was developed and became a part of Indian culture.
It was this method of sign language that inspired a young French priest to undertake the task of teaching British Columbia natives stenography, and to-day, as a result of his efforts, more than 2,000 Indians are proficient in the white man’s shorthand. The accomplishment is one that is unique in the annals of pedagogy, and is a romantic highlight in the remarkable story of the changing West.
I had heard of this priest, now grown old in the service of his church, but had never met him, and, like many others who had casually learned of his work, did not fully credit the success of his efforts.
Then came a day when I was being shown about Kamloops by a friend, with a Protestant clergyman as my companion in the rear seat of a big automobile.
Away off to the left in the purpling distance rose the bold face of Rattlesnake Bluff, while across the blue waters of the North Thompson stood Mount St. Paul, its bare slopes assuming the color of old gold in the afternoon sun.
Before us, winding like a yellow ribbon between the sage brush of the valley, stretched the dusty road. The motor was purring and the speedometer was checking off the miles almost as fast as the clock on the panel ticked away the minutes.
Then, there appeared over a rise half a mile away a team of cayuses.
“Indians,” commented my friend.
The team, drawing a buckboard, drew off to one side as we neared it, and as we flashed by in a cloud of dust, I caught sight of a man in clerical garb—a short, bearded man—seated beside the native driver. He waved his hand and my friend returned the salutation.
“One of yours?”
“No,” exclaimed my companion in some surprise, “that was Father Le Jeune.”
There was something in his tone which I took to be a deserved rebuke of my ignorance. It seemed to suggest that while I might be excused for not knowing the historic neighborhood of Kamloops there could be no apology for my not recognizing the priest. I said no more, but determined to meet and become acquainted with him.
A Remarkable Personality
A MUTUAL friend arranged the meeting some weeks c y later, and I am convinced that I have been privileged in coming into contact with one of the most remarkable persons in the whole of the West, and an outstanding figure in that little army of devoted menCatholic and Protestant -which has brought the story of Christ to the savage tribes of the Pacific slope.
It is not, however, with the forms of faith professed by the good missioners that I wish to deal, but with the unique and highly successful method adopted by Rev. Jean Marie Le Jeune, O.M.I., in conveying the message of the Church to the natives during nearly fifty years of labor west of the Rockies; of the strangest little newspaper in America, the Kamloops Wawa, of which he is editor, reporter, compositor and business manager, and of the remarkable accomplishments of the priest as lexicographer and educationalist.
Born in France, Father Le Jeune had to acquire a knowledge of the English language before coming to the West Coast as missionary in 1879. His object was to give religious instruction to savages who were unacquainted with either French or English. At that time the Indians carried on communication with whitemen through the medium of Chinook, a jargon invented by the Hudson’s
Bay fur traders in the early part of the last century. It can be well understood that the limitations of such a vocabulary lfeft much to be desired when it came to imparting spiritual instruction, especially so when the young priest had first to frame his thoughts in French, translate them into English and again express them in Chinook.
The task of teaching under such a handicap was sufficient to discourage many, but Father Le Jeune, anxious only to teach the story of Christianity, set to work with patience and determination. He made considerable headway during the first ten years of his mission to the Thompson, Shuswap and Okanagan tribes, but his progress was not as rapid as he desired.
He early found that it would be necessary for him to master the native languages—a task that the fur traders had hesitated to undertake. In doing so, he made use of shorthand, employing the Duployan system.
“English was no good; nor was. French, for the purpose,” he explained. “To get a word set down properly it was necessary to employ some method that was more flexible, so I would ask an Indian to name something in his own tongue. As he did so I would take the word down phonetically, and then later repeat it over and over again until I had mastered it. In that way I learned the native languages.”
The priest not only endeavored to instruct his parishioners in matters spiritual, but sought to have them improve their customs and manner of living. His parish was hundreds of square miles in extent, and he had to travel long distances to visit the villages under his charge. During his absence his lessons in hygiene and sanitation were often forgotten.
He realized that if the natives could read, his work among them would be more effective*, and he often pondered over the idea. It required years to instruct a white child in the rudiments of reading and writing; how could he expect to educate these people of the wilds?
Suddenly, one day as he was setting down a new word in stenographic characters, the idea came to him: he would teach the Indians shorthand—and without loss of time he set about his task.
Accomplishing the Seemingly Impossible
DERSONS to whom he communicated his * idea, including some of his fellow priests,
laughed at him, telling him it was impractical and impossible of accomplishment. He was not discouraged, and as a result of his conviction and perseverance hundreds of Indians in the Okanagan, the Thompson, Nicola and Coast districts are to-day proficient shorthand writers.
Indians for countless centuries, he reasoned, had interpreted painted or engraved symbols on rocks, and stenography was a language of symbols. Instead of representing something physical, the symbols of stenography represented sounds, and if, he argued, he could get the Indians to understand this, then he was sure of success.
A poor cripple boy, Charlie Alexis Mayous, was the first student of the simplified Duployan system Father Le Jeune adopted and adapted for his experiment. This was in September, 1890, and the rapidity with which the youth seized upon the sign language came as a complete and delightful surprise to his teacher. In a few weeks the lad. who conversed with the priest in Chinook, and his native tongue, was taking dictation in English, a language of which he was ignorant.
“You see,” explained the priest, “he was reporting sounds, not words. It did not make any difference to him what the sound was as long as he caught it. I would speak slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word, and he would set down the sounds as he heard them. Certain symbols represented certain sounds, and a word was made up of a number of sounds, therefore it was composed of the symbols representing those sounds.
“Then after he had fully mastered the use of shorthand, I got him to set down the symbols representing the word in English and then the symbols representing the word in Chinook, and in that way he Obtained the meaning of the word, and by reading his stenographic characters slowly he soon was able to pronounce it. He'Was ïising the same method to learn English that I had used to learn the native languages. Before long he could speak quite a lot of English words. He also helped me to overcome some of the difficulties I had encountered in the Indian tongue, for he would set down the correct pronounciation in shorthand, and I was able to read it off and improve my speech.”
Other Indians became interested in what Mayous was doing and sought instruction. The priest, with the assistance of his first pupil, was soon teaching a large class. Using large pieces of wrapping paper and smooth boards, he taught the natives, young and old. by the hour, and as soon as two or three became proficient he set them to work teaching other classes.
Within a year between 700 and 800 Indians could read stenographic characters.
The priest had not anticipated such an immediate and overwhelming success, and was confronted with a grave problem in consequence. It was very fine to have the Indians acquire the art of stenography, but he recognized that unless they had some practical use for their knowledge the accomplishment was useless. He was forced to the conclusion that he must provide--and that speedily —a means for them to utilize their 'higher education.’ What to do—that was the question. Ah! He had it— he would start a newspaper. He did.
His first thought was of type and presses, but then, of what use would type be when the text was to be set in stenographic characters and, again, where could he get
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such characters? It worried him for a time, until he saw some business man working a mimeograph. That was it; he would get such a machine! At last, after diligent search, he secured a battered old mimeograph and set to work with a stylus to compose the first number of the Kamloops Wawa—Wawa is Chinook for ‘talk’ or ‘speech’ or ‘news.’ The paper made its initial appearance during the summer of 1891. There were 100 copies of the number, but by March, 1892, such was the demand for the monthly newspaper that the edition did not meet the requirements. The little mimeographed sheets were passed from hand to hand until they were torn and ragged and almost unreadable. So the circulation was doubled. The priest worked harder than ever, and his classes increased in number and size.
In addition to his self-imposed duty Father Le Jeune had his parish to look after; his visits to the sick to make; he had to superintend the building of new churches as additional converts were secured in the different villages. The task of producing the Wawa became too much for him, so he taught several Indian women to copy his handwriting and they, for a time, assisted in the preparation of the waxed sheets.
In 1893 the circulation went up to 500 copies monthly and the size of the paper was increased from four to sixteen pages. Steadily it continued to grow until in 1895 it reached a total of 2,000 copies monthly, where it has remained. Now, however, it is intended to add another 1,000 to the production.
After the first few years the mimeograph gave out. It could not keep up with the demand. Then sufficient advertisers were found to defray the cost of having photo-engravings made of the pages that the priest laboriously wrote out in India ink. These plates were then run off on a job press. Gradually more and more English text was added as the education of the natives progressed, until to-day many of those whose education started with stenographic characters can read and understand the type text in the bright little journal as well as the younger generation who have been educated in Government schools.
You Can Pick Your Language!
A/T ANY are the amusing incidents that the good father has to tell of those early days. There was the time when a trader at Nicola, having heard of the foolish whim of the ‘blackgown’exclaimed;
“Father Le Jeune, you’ll never larn them Injun’s anythin’. Look at that kid with you. You aint goin’ t’ be able t’ teach him anythin’, what’s th’ use o’ tryin’?”
The father wrote a few stenographic characters on th? wrapping paper on the counter when the trader’s back was turned, and then motioned to the boy, who, the whiteman knew, was ignorant of English. The amazement of the merchant was complete when the lad exclaimed:
“You should not doubt the ability of others, Mr—. I do not have to go to school for years to know how to speak English.”
“The best of the joke,” laughed Father Le Jeune in recounting the incident, “was that the boy did not know a word of what he was saying. He was simply pro-
nouncing the phonetic sounds that the characters represented.”
Then there was a brother priest who doubted the success of the instructional method. He came to visit the class that the priest was conducting. Father Le Jeune wrote a sentence and a boy readily gave it in English. Thinking that the visitor might suspect that it was a prepared sentence he asked that the other set a sentence. This was done, and Father Le Jeune, who speaks, including native Indian dialects, more than forty languages, including most of the European tongues, wrote the sentence down in shorthand. He paused a second, then wrote it a second, third and fourth time. He called another boy to stand up and read it. The boy did so, reading the first line in English, the second in French, the third in Spanish and the fourth in Russian. The visitor was convinced.
“You see,” laughed Father Le jeune, “the lad did not know any of those languages, but I did. He knew that a circle, for instance, stood for ‘w’ as it is in ‘with’, and that each circle, or curve, or straight line meant a certain sound. It did not make any difference to him what the language was. He was reading and pronouncing the characters, just as he had been taught, so forming the words that I had written down.”
Now after nearly half a century spent in missionary endeavor among the Indians this remarkable man is starting on a new task. It is no less than the preparation of the native grammars and dictionaries of the Indian tribes among which he has labored so long, in order that those who come after him may find the way easier than he did in acquiring the languages of the people. Some idea of the magnitude of the task he has set for himself in these ‘studies’, as he calls them, may be gathered from his explanation: “These are genuine, full fledged languages, with complete conjugations; say thirty or forty persons to a tense, and thirty or more tenses to a conjugation and three to six conjugations to a verb.”
In order to provide himself with the necessary funds to carry out this momentous task—and his modest requirements amount to only $500—Father Le Jeune has produced a booklet that is a distinct curiosity and a most valuable contribution to the literature of Canada. It is a Chinook-English dictionary, photo-engraved in the same manner as the Kamloops Wawa. It contains in addition to the script of the text, the stenographic characters for the pronunciation of the words.
In order that those who study thelittle booklet may have every advantage in acquiring the 562 words that constitute the jargon, the author has included in its pages his ‘phonetic alphabet’, which after a few hours of study should enable the student to master Indian stenography.
Father Le Jeune is a man of small stature, with rosy cheeks that a school girl might envy, a mouth and dark eyes that are expressive of his every mood. He is naturally of a retiring disposition and blushes when any person lauds the work he has done in his hearing, for he deprecates his own achievements and praises the accomplishments of his flock.
A most remarkable man indeed is Father Le Jeune, beloved by all who know him and respected by every chance acquaintance he makes in his journeyings by train, trail or water.