Sequim has been mistranslated for a century

SEQUIM — A tribal linguist has determined the translation used for the past century for the town of Sequim — long believed by many to mean “quiet waters” — is wrong.

The correct translation, it turns out, is a “place for going to shoot,” a reference to the Sequim-Dungeness Valley’s once great elk and waterfowl hunting, said Timothy Montler, an expert in the study of dying languages.

Since 1992, Montler has studied the Klallam language and interviewed elders in the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Blynn. The tribe announced the new, more accurate translation last week after the culture committee decided it should be publicized, said Betty Oppenheimer, the tribe’s publications specialist.

“I think it just quietly rippled out of the ether,” Oppenheimer said of how the wrong translation spread.

When asked where the “quiet waters” translation came from, Montler said, “That’s something that somebody made up.”

The “quiet waters” reference is ingrained in Sequim history, with references in regional visitor guides, historical publications and on websites, including those of Sequim Chamber of Commerce, the city of Sequim and the state’s sites for Sequim Bay State Park and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Montler, a distinguished research professor in linguistics at the University of North Texas, has created a Klallam language website with help from the last few native speakers on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Klallam is one language in a larger family of American Indian languages called Salishan or Salish spoken in what is now Washington, British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

A speaker of Lummi, for example, could learn Klallam very easily, and vice versa. The Klallam language, itself, has several dialects.

The Klallam word for Sequim can be broken down into parts that mean “reason, thing or place for” and “shoot (with gun or bow and arrow)” and the ending means “go to.”

“So literally it means ‘place for going to shoot,”’ Montler said.

He said the analysis leaves no doubt.

“It is clear to native speakers and has been confirmed by elders,” Montler said.

Jamestown S’Klallam tribe is trying to keep the language alive, teaching it to tribal youths beginning in kindergarten, she said.

“They learn to introduce themselves and sing the songs of the language,” she said.

Pat McCauley, a marketing businesswoman in Sequim for much of the past 25 years, said the “quiet waters” reference was cited in the late Clallam County historian Harriet U. Fish’s findings and books as coming from tribal members.

“That blows me away,” McCauley said, responding to the new translation. “But in some ways it makes sense. Sequim is not a waterfront town.”

Elaine Grinnell, a Jamestown S’Klallam tribal member and a member of the Sequim Museum &Arts Center board, said her grandmother, Elizabeth Prince, was interviewed by Montler before she died.

“My people did go there to shoot,” Grinnell, born in 1936, recalled. “The ducks would go in there, and the hunting was plentiful. I remember that as a kid.”

Her cousin and fellow tribal member, Les Prince, said he trusted Montler’s translation if he talked to the elders, but he also suspected there may be a number of interpretations.

Information from: Peninsula Daily News,


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