Friday, February 26, 2016

History Rewritten - 3

Languages evolve over the course of centuries to meet the needs of their speakers and to convey the thoughts these speakers choose to express. Each language shows us a unique way of understanding experience; the loss of a language means the loss of all that could be learned through the study of that language about human values, oral literature and tradition, history, and human thought.
-Dr. Lyle Campbell, University of Canterbury

Almost in desperation, linguists have begun to adopt the vocabulary and metaphors of biologists. They too are speaking about the resilience that comes with diversity. They too are asking for niches of equilibrium to remain undisturbed. They too are warning of the dangers inherent in ... an "impoverished and homogenized world," one in which a few dominant lifeforms have overrun and erased the diversity that used to sustain us.
-Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages


In the sixteenth century, the linguistic diversity of the Americans was far greater than that of Europe.  Thousands of languages were spoken in the Western Hemisphere, but as indigenous people were wiped out by colonization and related causes, many of those languages went extinct.

And it continues.  Let’s consider a few statistics from David Crystal, author of Language Death:

There are some 6,000 languages in the world at the moment. And of these, about half – some say more, come say less – are going to die out in the course of the next century. The relevant deduction is sobering: 3,000 languages in 1200 months. That means, on average, there is a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so.

Crystal points to natural disasters, cultural assimilation and genocide as reasons for language extinction. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to draw parallels to the current unprecedented rate of extinction for biological species.

In his book, Crystal retells an amazing story of a lost language recovered:

The explorer Alexander von Humboldt was searching for the soure of the Orinoco, in South America, in 1801. He met some Carib Indians who had recently exterminated a neighbouring tribe and captured some of their domesticated parrots. The parrots still spoke words of the now extinct language, and von Humboldt was able to transcribe some of them.

Von Humboldt himself explained it in this manner:
A tradition circulates among the Guahiboes, that the warlike Atures, pursued by the Caribbees, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heartofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as it’s language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures’

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) spent five years in Latin America, including extensive exploration of the Andes.  Von Humboldt visited many of the same places as had Hernando De Soto (1500-1542) almost three centuries earlier, though De Soto kept a much narrower focus with his curiosity (“Where’s the gold and silver?” was his obsessive demand wherever he went). 


Starting his career as a conquistador at age 14, Hernando De Soto honed his deadly skills under the command of Francisco Pizarro, sharing in the plunder of the wealth of the Incas.

1954 Desoto Adventurer

De Soto expected to find similar treasures in North America, landing in Tampa Bay with 620 men and 220 horses.  Soon after their arrival in May 1539, an incident as remarkably improbable as Humboldt’s Parrots contributed immeasurably to the expedition.

Rodrigo Ranjel recalled the unexpected find for the De Soto party:

Toward sunset, being off their road, because the Indian, who was the guide, led them wandering and confused, it pleased God that they descried at a distance some twenty Indians painted with a kind of red ointment that the Indians put on when they go to war or wish to make a fine appearance. They wore many feathers and had their bows and arrows And when the Christians ran at them the Indians fled to a hill, and one of them came forth into the path lifting up his voice and saying, "Sirs, for the love of God and of Holy Mary, slay not me; I am a Christian like yourselves and was born in Seville, and my name is Johan Ortiz."

“Juan” Ortiz was a member of the disastrous Narvaez expedition to La Florida 11 years earlier. Since his capture he had been living among Timucuan-speaking Florida natives.  A kind of Pocahontas story emerged concerning a chief’s daughter who saved Ortiz from certain death. 

In fact, some historians have accused John Smth of stealing the story of Juan Ortiz and adopting it as his own.   As retold in 1908, the story of Juan Ortiz’s capture and punishment and his rescue by Ulelah would be just the thing for outdoor drama. 

I thought I was above these digressions into outrageous fiction (?), but this is too rich to pass up:

Narvaez, who had made a treaty of peace with Ucita, Casique of the province called Hirrigua, afterward treated that chief with the greatest cruelty, giving his aged mother to be torn to pieces by dogs, for complaining of an outrage which had been committed by one of the Spaniards on the person of a young Indian woman. The chief becoming incensed, threatened vengeance, when he was seized and scourged, by order of Narvaez, and his nose cut off.

This chief and his family were not slow to wreak their vengeance upon the unfortunate Spaniards who had now fallen into their hands. They were taken to a square inclosed with palisades and, in the presence of Ucita, one of the four was stripped of his clothing and made to run around the inclosure while the Indians amused themselves shooting arrows into his body, until death terminated the cruel sport.

This was repeated with two of the others until Ortiz was the only survivor. Believing him to be the son of Narvaez, he was reserved for slow and more lingering torture. A wooden frame was constructed on which the victim was laid and bound, and a slow fire built beneath. 

The tortures of the unfortunate youth, who was but eighteen years of age, excited the pity of an Indian woman who hastened to the dwelling of the Casique and made known the situation to Uleleh the Chief's eldest daughter, then about sixteen years old. The young princess thereupon threw herself at the feet of her father and entreated him to suspend the execution and release the victim.

Her request was granted and Ortiz was unbound, but suffered greatly from his burns. He was attended by the medicine man of the tribe, and the princess and her attendants did all that they could to relieve his sufferings.

But, notwithstanding the importunities of his daughter, Ucita would not desist from the infliction of continued cruelties upon the young man, or relieve him from the sentence of death under which he was. He was employed in the most slavish and laborious occupations, and at times compelled to run all day in the public square where Indians stood ready to shoot him if he should stop.

After about nine months of such life the chief consented to suspend execution of the death sentence for a year on condition that he be required to keep guard over the cemetery of the tribe, three miles from the village; where, according to custom, the bodies of their dead were exposed on biers or stages several feet above ground. It was necessary to keep watch over them at night to protect them from beasts of prey.

Criminals under sentence of death were usually appointed to keep this watch, and were permitted to live provided they escaped from the dangers of their occupation. If the guard permitted a corpse to be carried away by wild animals he was put to death the following day. Uleleh informed Ortiz of the conditions of the suspension of his sentence, which he did not hesitate to accept.

Armed with a bow and arrows he commenced his lonely watch, occupying a hut in the midst of the cemetery. The stench of dead bodies soon overpowered him. From this he recovered, however, sufficient to drive off wolves that appeared in the early part of the night.

About midnight an animal carried off the corpse of a child. Ortiz, terror stricken at what might result from the failure of his vigilance, followed in the direction the animal had taken and guided by the sound of the gnawing of bones, taking aim, as best as he could in the dark, shot an arrow at it, which he was rejoiced to discover next morning had penetrated the heart of the animal (a panther) and killed it. This feat won the admiration of the Indians.

After about two weeks of such service in the cemetery, the princess Uleleh accompanied by two faithful attendants came to the cemetery one night and informed Ortiz that the priests had demanded his death at their approaching festival; that their demands would have to be complied with unless he escaped by flight.

Inspired by the great beauty of the Indian princess and her uniform kindness to him, Ortiz made a declaration of his love, entreated her to accompany him in flight, seek asylum with some friendly tribe and become his wife, promising to take her to the land of his birth.

But the dusky maiden was not slow to inform her white suitor that her kindness to him was not the inspiration of love, but pity for his sad condition, that she was already betrothed to a neighboring Casique, Mocoso, to whose protection she was about to recommend him.

She then presented him with a girdle, as a token that she had sent him, and furnished him with a faithful guide. Accompanied by this guide, Ortiz was prompt to seek safety in flight, arriving near Mocoso's village, the guide then left him. Some fishermen discovered him as he was approaching the village and took up their weapons with the purpose of assailing him, but desisted when he showed them the girdle.

He was then led by them through the village and to the presence of the chief Mocoso, a young Indian of handsome appearance and intelligent countenance, to whom he presented the girdle sent by his bethrothed, the princess Uleleh, with request for his protection.

Mocoso assured him of safe asylum and treated him with every kindness and affection. When the Casique Ucita heard that Ortiz had escaped and taken refuge with Mocoso he sent a demand to the latter for his return to him; this Mocoso refused, causing an estrangement between the two Casiques, which delayed for a considerable time the marriage of Mocoso and Uleleh.


Whatever actually happened before his reunion with fellow Spaniards, the appearance of Juan Ortiz was the best thing that De Soto could have hoped for. And, according to the chroniclers, Mocoso cultivated the relationship with De Soto, believing the Spanish force would help him gain revenge against his old enemy, Ucita.

With language skills acquired over the preceding decade, Juan Ortiz was De Soto’s interpreter through Florida and to the interior.  As the army marched beyond chiefdoms speaking languages known to Ortiz, a boy named Perico came into the picture, adding to the capacity to communicate in Georgia and the Carolinas.

During his three-year invasion of America, De Soto travelled through areas that were home to at least five families of languages – Timucuan, Muskogean, Siouan, Iroquoian and Algonquian.  Each of these might have been represented by one or more (or many) specific languages and dialects. 

Possibly, the Mobilian Jargon, an evolving pidgin language, bridged barriers on parts of the trip.  It was spoken among the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.  But the Mobilian Trade Language, whatever its stage of development in 1540, must have been of limited value. 

By the time the De Soto expedition reached the Mississippi River, Team Ortiz had grown to between ten and fourteen interpreters, captives plucked from villages speaking different tongues along the way.


With so many links in the chain, misunderstandings, mischief, or worse, must have arisen.  It brings to mind an incident included among the Payne-Butrick papers, from the early nineteenth century:

The [Creek] prisoner was brought up for trial.  One Captain [James] Carey, a Cherokee Interpreter, was called upon to explain.  Carey did not understand a word of Creek, but it was not for him to disclose the secret of a tribe with whom he was friendly, so he let the Court believe that the prisoner talked good Cherokee.

“What is the man’s name?” asked the Judge.

“Hibungo Highgo,” replied the Interpreter.

“And what,” continued the Judge, “may Highbungo Highgo, mean in English?”

“It means, please your Honor, Dance upon Nothing.”

“Very well.  Proceed & read to him the Indictment & let the Interpreter explain it to the prisoner.”

The Indictment was read & the Interpreter, turning to the Prisoner, said: “Buncknee highgo hominy haw heebucks-cheh.”

To which the Indian replied, not understanding a syllable: “Oom hoo.”

“What is it he says, Captain Carey?”

“He says, your Honor, True Enough.  He shot Jo Ish in the back with two bullets while he was ploughing.”

Said the Judge, “Ask him if he is ready for his trial.”

“Buncknee highgo hominy haw heebucks-cheh,” says Captain Carey.

“Oom hoo,” repeats the Indian.

“What does he say now, Captain Carey?”

“He says he is a man & a warrior and not afraid to die.”

“What?” said the Judge.  “Does he say all that is so few words?”

“Your honor must know,” replied the Captain, “that the ‘Cherokee’ is a very comprehensive language.”

Whereupon the plea of guilty was entered in due form & the Indian executed.  When Carey was asked afterward whether his conscience was at rest after the affair, “Perfectly” said he, “for I’ve done a fine thing for the Cherokees.”

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