Indians, hops, and Chinuk Wawa


(Image credit: Brooklyn Brew Shop)

It’s been said Native migrant labor in (mostly settler-owned) hops fields of the Pacific Northwest correlated with speaking Chinook Jargon. Today, some new documentation.

Most hops in the USA are in fact grown in the PNW; nowadays, notably here in Washington.

One of the earliest links I’ve located is this from southern California, speaking of Washington Territory in the overly racist terms I often see in that state’s early newspapers:

indians hops siwashes

The genuine aborigine is not naturally an initiative animal, but we see it stated that in Puyallup valley the Siwashes [Natives] have gotten up an Indian ring for the purpose of making a cor- [sic] corner in hop-picking.

— from the Los Angeles (CA) Daily Herald of September 15, 1875, page 3, column 2

I have also run into non-Chinook Jargon-related articles commenting on Washington Indians successfully demanding wages more than 2.5 times those of Chinese immigrants, who still had a hard time getting these jobs. Indians were understood to spend their earnings locally, that is, among White merchants, rather than sending it overseas like the Chinese. That helps explain why Native labor was a “must” for the hop harvest. This Seattle article from 1877 speaks of acres of “Siwash” camps at the Puyallup hop fields. And many articles cite the need for 2,000 or more hops pickers per valley; in the early years of Northwest settler culture, there would have been more Native people available than anyone else to fill this need created by the farmers’ profit orientation. As years passed and the settler population grew, Whites began to successfully underbid Natives for this kind of work.

Grand Ronde and Siletz Indians, as well as Warm Springs, members of communities where many knew Chinuk Wawa and even spoke it from birth, were a major source of hops labor in Oregon’s mutually adjoining Linn and Lane Counties. Some Native people were said to canoe from as far as Sitka, Alaska, to work the Puyallup fields of Washington.

(Tangential remark: “Linn” and “Lane” might sound identical in many folks’ Chinook Jargon, complicating a reporter’s job of determining where a passing wagonload of Indians was heading.)

Some locally-sourced exhibits starting before WA statehood:

It might not be unreasonable to detect a conspiratorial note in this published notice to settler merchants:

indians hops puyallup

About a dozen large canoes loaded with Indians and their baggage arrived here yesterday on their way to the Swinomish reservation. They are from the Puyallup hop fields. Hop picking is about over up there an we may expect them all down shortly. They have hi-yu chickamen.  (háyú chíkʰəmin = lots of money, earned picking hops)

— from the Seattle (WA) Daily Intelligencer of October 6, 1877, page 3, column 1

Contrast that with the following more sympathetic understanding of why the Indians go to work picking hops:

indians hops mason county

The Indians, or a great many of them, returned from the Puyallup hop fields, with hi-yu chickamin. The families usually come in wagons, and it reminds one of prairie schooners of the early days, to see the wagons covered with a sheet on four poles, to keep the load dry. This may not be pleasant journeying, but the tourists do not seem to mind it much. Their annual pilgrimage to the hop fields nets the Indians money enough to exist the remainder of the year. 

— from the Shelton (WA) Mason County Journal of October 11, 1889, page 5, column 1

Sometimes the local media reported in detail how Native people spent their hops earnings. For example, in the Puget Sound area, handbells were a popular purchase — quite likely for use in Indian Shaker Church services.

Because the pickers camped for quite a while at the fields, they had days off to relax and socialize:

indian hop pickers boston civilization

— from the Seattle (WA) Daily Intelligencer of September 21, 1879, page 3, column 2

Ten years into statehood, an article that I think mostly quotes a state-government press release but is signed by reporter Jos. N. Fernandez, titled


Gives Additional Valuable Information to Yakima Hop Growers.

— from the Yakima (WA) Herald of September 14, 1899, page 10, column 2 —

ends with this paragraph added for local interest:

indians hops yakima

Picking will commence about the 10th of September in some yards, and by the 18th or 20th everything will be in full blast. You can then hear the laughing and singing of the pickers and crying of babies, and once in a while a mix up in the hop yards. At night the Indians will gamble with the bone game, have their “cultus potlach and mamok tomamus” and a “hiyas kloshe me, me copa hop time.”

I infer this colorful passage to be attempting to represent Jargon as locally spoken: kʰə́ltəs pátlach (‘a giveaway’) … mámuk t’əmánewas (‘make Indian-doctoring’) … hayas-łúsh mə́kʰmək kʰapa háp tʰáym (‘a very good feed at hops time’).

The above are just a sampling from the many newspaper articles that the region’s press published in our region’s first decades of settlement. The picture conveyed is one of large intertribal and interethnic gatherings on a yearly basis, where Chinook Jargon would have played a signficant role.