Ranch tales: The origin of the Chinook language

By Ken Mather – Vernon Morning Star
Published: July 22, 2011 1:00 AM

‘Early B.C. cowboys were allegedly masters of three languages, English, Chinook and profane…

As one early settler observed: “In those early days we in British Columbia, were more or less a bi-lingual race. The custom’s officer on the wharf at New Westminster, pointing to some baggage, would say to some newly-arrived immigrant just off the boat from San Francisco, ‘Are these your “iktas”?’ (things), and the schoolboys at play would shout, ‘Klosh nanich,’ instead of ‘Look out.’ The children did not go to school to learn Chinook, they grew up with it.”

Joseph Richter, the son of Frank Richter and his Similkameen wife, Lucy, spoke the language fluently.

“At first our only neighbours were Similkameen Indians. We often hired them to help in the fields or on the range. Fluency in Chinook jargon was necessary and I learned to understand but not to speak the Okanagan tongue. On one occasion, when I was trading deer hides for buckskin gloves I heard the klootchman say to her husband in Okanagan, “These are very good skins.” But when he turned to me he said in Chinook, “Yaka skin tenas kloshe” (skins not much good). “Oh” [I] said, “Your klootchman just told you they were good skins.” After that I got the trade I expected.”

Some common words for the cowboy speaker of Chinook included:

  • kiuatan – horse
  • moosmoos – cattle, buffalo
  • klootchman moosmoos – cow
  • kamooks – dog
  • lemel – mule
  • callipeen – rifle/musket
  • lope – rope
  • lewhet – whip
  • seapo – hat
  • siskiyou – a bobtailed horse
  • kishkish – to drive
  • tupso – grass
  • lamonti – mountain
  • stick shoes – boots

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.’