I was involved with the naming of the new Portland bridge this past year. I was invited onto the committee and it was a very interesting process. when we got down to the final names Tilicum was chosen over all others. This was a suggestion from many Portlanders and the suggestion of the tribe. But when we deliberated the spelling there was some variation. We could have spelled it Tilixem (with X being another character sounding like the clearing of your throat, and the “e” being actually upside down and a schwa symbol) as well as this is how it is spelled in the Grand Ronde dictionary of the Chinuk wawa language.
Spelling of most native languages is an invention of linguists. we happen to have a very good linguist working on behalf of the tribe, Henry Zenk. He has tried to spell the language in comprehensive ways for the tribe. But really the manner in which we spell the language is his invention. Its also the way in which linguistics as a science operates. Linguists look for rules in the way the languages operate. But human languages don’t always follow rules. English is a good example of this, and there are so many inconsistencies in the way we spell and conjugate different words, not based on their sounds but because of historic conventions and because the history of incorporation of different words into English.
So for native languages, what is being created for writing conventions are an abomination. languages have never before been analyzed by linguists and then spelled based on their sounds. That is a 20th century phenomenon. So how this relates to the proper spelling of Tilikum, is that there really is not a proper spelling. The tribe has adopted the linguistic spelling as its own, but we have the option of spelling the language in any way we want to. The current convention is to stick by the linguistic spelling, but most of the words have lots of alternate spellings.
So we chose one spelling for the word, one which was easily accessible to the greater American public. In another issue we encounter the strange notion that people would make a pejorative from the word. As in “till-I-cum”. This seemed like a high school way of thinking and yet we altered the last syllable to “Kum” to eliminate some of this. I think we made good choices in the word spelling, maintained some of the alternative spellings of the word, and everyone on the committee really appreciated the word for its tribal and historic character. I trust the people of Portland appreciate the tribes for their work on this and will be inspired to ask questions about the tribal histories and culture that have been here for so long.
For me, this is a return of one of our tribal names to our traditional lands, so that the words become part of our contemporary life ways. So much of what we were as native people was obscured by history and newcomers to our lands who do not care to understand or know the truth of native peoples. We are slowly reversing that paradigm.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.