Carmack of the Klondike

Western gold rushes were associated with Chinook Jargon.

We see bits of CJ appearing in northern California shortly after the Forty-Niners arrived from the eastern states. Those men couldn’t have known a useful thing about the Jargon beforehand; it was present in a couple of bestselling memoirs, but a bestseller at that time still had limited impact. And no entrepreneurs had yet rushed Jargon dictionaries into print for prospectors’ use (as they later would). It’s as if sheer Yankee ingenuity preconditioned the gold-rushers to see that the fur-trading and pioneering language they found next door, where Oregon was steadily being settled, was just the tool that their “outfits” had been lacking. Natives were the majority, and you had to work with them, so try “talking Indian”.

One of my favorite research studies on Chinuk Wawa is Bill Turkel’s convincing argument that the language became a factor in British Columbia only due to the gold rushes of 1858 onward.

As “gold excitement” after “gold excitement” became kind of a routine occurrence (hats off to confirmation bias!), people came to assume that the Jargon was one of the basic items you took along on your mineral explorations in Indian country. So by the Klondike era of the middle and later 1890s, would-be miners were the major vector of transmission for the viral idea of an intercultural language.


(Photo credit: Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park)

One of those cheechakoes, a word my Alaskan family used all my life, was son of California, US Marine Corps deserter, and grass-widower of his Native wife George Washington Carmack (1860-1922, and what an American name!).

I’ve been looking at a very good biography of this hero of history, “Carmack of the Klondike” by James Albert Johnson (Epicenter Press, 1990). While some of the Jargon in it may be concocted for atmosphere, Mr. Johnson had the unique advantage of owning Carmack’s letters (see pages xii-ix for the extraordinary story behind that). Some solid details of the prospector’s Chinuk Wawa fluency emerge that I’m glad to learn from him.

Sitka, Alaska, 1882:

The Tlingit Indians lived in an area known as the
“rancherie,” separated from the town by a tall cedar fence.
At night, a gate was locked to keep the Tlingits away from
the townpeople. Carmack enjoyed talking with the Tlingits
and soon picked up the Chinook jargon the Indians used to
communicate with white men. Carmack then turned his at-
tention to the Tlingit dialect, learning enough of that gut-
tural language to carry on an ordinary conversation. He
seemed to have a natural flair for new languages. (pages 17-18)

Mid-May 1885, Chilkoot village, Alaska:

As the launches from the Pinta faded from sight in the
slanting rain of a passing squall, the prospectors made camp
for the night. Carmack and his partners were putting up
their tent when a big Indian canoe with upturned prow
came gliding up to the shore. Three Indians climbed over
the ornate bow decorated with carved totemic figures and
walked slowly up the sloping beach.

“Must be the Chilkoot packers,” said Al Day. “Anybody
here savvy Chinook?

“Nika kumtux Chinook,” replied Carmack. “I under-
stand Chinook. Learned the lingo at Sitka.”

“George, you dicker for our party. All I know about
Chinook is that ‘klahowya’ means ‘how are you’.”

“Leave it to me.”

“Don’t take their first offer. Last year we paid $15 a hun-
dred; that’s too much.”

“I’ve haggled with Indians before,” Carmack responded

“Klahowya,” said the tall Indian with the stringy mus-

“Klahowya,” replied Carmack.

“Mika kumtux Chinook?”

“Nika kumtux Chinook.” (pages 28-29)

Juneau, Alaska, 1885:

On occasional days of despair, Carmack was lonely for
home and family and thought of returning to California. He
told Rose of his feelings in a November letter.

“I have not been doing much as I can get nothing to do.
If I can find enough clams to keep me through the win-
ter I will be solid. Some of the men came back from the
Yukon reporting good diggings there. But I don’t think
I will go in there again. If I can get good wages here in
Juneau I will stay until I can make a grubstake for
Becky and me.”

On the back of this letter, Carmack wrote a message in
Chinook jargon, accompanied by a translation in English.

Chinook     |     English

Nika sick tumtum nika     |     I am lonesome for I
tika nanitch mika     |     want to see you.
Spose nika iskum     |     If I make
chickamin nika coolie     |     some money I will go
nika illahee nanitch     |     home to see
mika. Spose mika tika     |     you. If you want
cultus coolie klosh     |     to go on a pleasure trip
mika chako kopa     |     you come to
Juneau nanitch nika     |     Juneau to see me.
(pages 40-41)

First time I’ve seen a definite Chinuk Wawa utterance attributed to him. This alone is worth the price of admission! It’s truly fluent, with nuances like:

  • coolie for ‘travel’ rather than the generic klatawa that many new speakers overused.
  • Better yet, a “zero” preposition in coolie nika illahee ‘I will go home’ (better understood as ‘travel TO my home’).
  • I’m also impressed with klosh mika chako (literally ‘good (that) you come’) for the command ‘come’ (many less-fluent anglophone speakers would resort just to chako).
  • And the serial-verb-y …chako kopa Juneau nanitch nika (literally ‘…come to Juneau see me’) is high Jargon style, avoiding the pe ‘and’ or spose ‘in order to’ that many English speakers would stick with.

At Dyea, Alaska (next door to Skagway), 1886:

“Klahowya, Jim, klahowya, Charley,” Healy said.

The Indians acknowledged the greeting with similar expressions and then dumped their furs on the counter.

“George, I want you to meet a couple of honest Indians,”
Healy said. “This big fellow here is Skookum Jim. He’s a
Tagish Indian from the interior. He’s the best damn packer
there is. He can lug a 150-pound load over the pass. That’s
why they call him Skookum Jim.”

Carmack shook hands with the stocky Indian, whose
frowning expression never changed.

“This little fellow is Tagish Charley. He’s a nephew of
Jim’s. I got two other Charleys trading with me so I call this
one Tagish Charley. The Chilkoots don’t like him. They
call him Cultus Charley, a no-good Charley, but he’s a good
packer and tough as a spruce knot.”

Carmack watched Healy sort the mass of marten, fox,
muskrat and beaver pelts into separate piles. The trader ran
his hand expertly over each fur, appraising it. Then the
bargaining began, conducted entirely in Chinook. Carmack
had no difficulty following it. When the bargaining ended,
Skookum Jim received $125 and Tagish Charley agreed to
$100. The two Indians told Healy they were looking for
work as packers. He suggested they set up camp near
Carmack in back of the trading post. The two Tagish men
felt that here they were not likely to be harassed by the
Chilkoots, who had dominated and terrorized their tribe for
many years. Carmack helped them build a crude lean-to of
spruce boughs to keep out the summer rain. Having them
as neighbors gave Carmack an opportunity to practise his
Chinook. (pages 42-43)

Top of the Chilkoot Trail, 1886:

Once again at the summit, they put down their packs and
rested. It was one of those rare days when the sun shone
from a cloudless sky. On all sides, jagged mountain peaks of
the coastal range stood out in bold relief. Carmack pointed
to the lakes visible in the distance. He was not the only one
impressed with the magnificent view. Skookum Jim swung
his arm in a wide arc and then spoke, using a combination
of Chinook and English.

“Dis Inchen illahee. Hiyu skookum illahee. Hiyu clean,
all same sky.”

“Yes, Jim, it’s Indian country. It’s a good land. Plenty
clean, like the sky,” agreed Carmack. (page 44)

Hiyu is literally ‘a lot, much’, so Jim could have been expressing that it was ‘a lot of Indian land’. Looking at the context, though, this looks like legitimate usage for the northern region. The later, more heavily English-influenced varieties of Chinuk Wawa that we typically find north of Puget Sound favor hiyu as their intensifier, as opposed to the delate/dret farther south. The use of skookum as ‘excellent’ here is also typical of northern varieties. And Jim goes on to modify an adjective with it, hiyu clean, proving that this is an adverb and not a quantifier.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation:

Because only a few Tagish understood Chinook,
Carmack had difficulty communicating until he picked up a
smattering of their language; it had much in common with
the Tlingit language used by the coastal Indians. The
Tagish could not pronounce the letter “r”— it is not used in
Tagish or Chinook jargon— so when Skookum Jim said
“George,” it sounded more like “Judge,” and the word
“river” came out “wiva.” In the village, Jim was known by
his Tagish name, Kahse. (page 45)

August 17, 1896, Bonanza Creek, Yukon District, Northwest Territories:

“Looky here, Kate, looky here!” he yelled.

When he emptied the shotgun shell of coarse gold into
her hand, her dark widened and she screamed out her de-
light in Tagish phrases, then switched to Chinook.

“Hiyu pil chikamin! Hiyu pil chikamin!”

“Yes, Kate, plenty gold, plenty gold.”

Charley’s brother Patsy came running to see and hold the

“You staket [sic] claim for me?”

“No, Patsy, you’re too young to stake a claim. Don’t
worry, I’ll see that you get hiyu gold.” (pages 81-82)

(Pil chikamin is literally ‘red metal’.)

There you go, some adventurous reading for the day!