Indigenous:: originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native, eg "the indigenous peoples of Siberia."
Synonyms: native, aboriginal, local.
We’ve had two examples recently of indigenous interpreters on this blog. First the contemporary example of the Nicaraguan Akateko and Q’anjob’al speaker Carmelina, who calls herself a native interpreter (a synonym); and then the historical example of the Aborigene Bungaree. Scroll down a few pages to find those posts. Bungaree was the first ‘Australian’ English interpreter, but he wasn’t the first Australasian one. That distinction surely belongs to Tupaia, who had originally been recruited some thirty years ealier by the British naval officer and explorer Samuel Wallis (1728-1795) and then passed on to James Cook’s expedition. Tupaia was born in the Society Islands near Tahiti. He was a very different character from Bungaree. The latter was a ‘rough diamond’, whereas Tupaia was highly educated and respected in his own culture and became a leading priest for his people. Bungaree was popular with Flinders’ sailors, whereas Cook’s crew found Tupaia too haughty. But both of them contributed qualities that made them invaluable to their European employers beyond their language skills, as often happens with indigenous interpreters. Bungaree saved lives by his courage. In the case of Tupaia,
“He was also taught [by his people] how to be a star navigator. His memorized knowledge included island lists, including their size, reef and harbor locations, whether they were inhabited, and if so, the name of the chief and any food produced there. More importantly, his memory would include the bearing of each island, the time to get there, and the succession of stars and islands to follow to get there."
His employment by Cook was, however, not all plain sailing:
“Tupaia joined [Cook’s ship] Endeavour in July 1769 when it passed his home island of Ra'iatea in the outward voyage from Plymouth. He was welcomed aboard at the insistence of Sir Joseph Banks, the Cook expedition's official botanist, on the basis of his evident skill as a navigator and mapmaker: when asked for details of the region Tupaia drew a chart showing all 130 islands within a 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius and was able to name 74 of them. Banks welcomed the Raiatean's interest in travelling with Endeavour to England where he could be presented as an anthropological curiosity. Australian academic Vanessa Smith has speculated that Banks also envisaged conversation, amusement and possibly a genuine friendship from Tupaia's company during the voyage. As Cook at first refused to allow Tupaia to join the expedition for financial reasons, Banks agreed to be responsible for the Raiatean's welfare and upkeep while on board."
Tupaia was also an artist (see Image), and ten watercolours of his survive as well as the map he drew for Cook. Though he wasn’t a Maori speaker, his Polynesian language was sufficiently close for him to be able to communicate with the Maori when Cook reached New Zealand, and eventually to become highly respected by them.
On the opposite side of the globe, a few years later, there was the famous case of Sacagawea (aka Sakakawea or Sacajawea), who was pressed into service as interpreter for the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition of 1804-1806. She earned her fame on several counts. First because she was that rarity: an interpreter who has made it into popular history and legend. She did it by her skills, bravery and hardiness; secondly because she was a woman; and thirdly, but not least, because she was a Native American whose aid was invaluable to the nascent United States. There was a post about her on this blog that you can retrieve by entering sacagawea in the Search box on the right.
Later in the nineteenth century, indigenous interpreters became institutionalised by government pay in the American west. Thus we read in Dee Brown’s tragic book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee:
“Most Indian leaders spoke freely and candidly in councils with white officials, and as they became more sophisticated in such matters during the 1870’s and 1880’s, they demanded the right to choose their own interpreters and recorders... Millions of their words are preserved in official records. Even when the meetings were in remote parts of the West, someone usually was available to write down the speeches, and because of the slowness of the [consecutive] translation process, much of what was said could be recorded in longhand. Interpreters quite often were half-bloods who knew spoken languages but seldom could read or write. Like most oral peoples they and the Indians depended upon imagery to express their thoughts, so that the English translations were filled with graphic similes and metaphors of the natural world. If an eloquent Indian had a poor interpreter, his words might be transformed to flat prose, but a good interpreter could make a poor speaker sound poetic.”
Tupaia, Bungaree and Carmina represent three phases in imdigenous interpreting: respectively the exploratory, the colonial and today’s migratory. I myself took part in some training for colonial indigenous Indian and Inuit interpreters in the Northwest Territories of Canada; but for the most part indigenous interpreters don’t receive training. One reason is the difficulty of finding teachers who know their languages. It’s basically the uncommonness of their languages that makes them indispensable.
Tupaia (navigator). Wikipedia, 2019.
Samuel Wallis. Wikipedia, 2019.
Dee Brown. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. 1970.
A Maori man and Joseph Banks exchanging a crayfish for a piece of cloth, drawing by Tupaia, c.1769. Source: Wikipedia.