Weird Jargon & shamans in Alaska

shores and alps judge practises

The Judge practises the Chinook Language — “Siwash sik tumt-tum o-cook kum tux.” (page 44)

The above drawing by Heywood Walter Seton-Karr (1859-1938) as a member of the New York Times Alaska Expedition is the only substantial piece of Chinuk Wawa in his memoir…

…and it’s odd Chinook Jargon:

sáwásh sík-tə́mtəm úkuk kə́mtəks = Indian hurt-heart this know = perhaps ‘the Indian is sad to hear this’, where we’d normally expect …kə́mtəks úkuk, placing the object at the end.

Possibly the quirkiness of this sentence reflects local (Sitka) Tlingit-language influence, if it’s not the words of the unnamed Judge in this unexplained vignette. (I had assumed this was the Native-language-researching Judge James Wickersham, but it’s before his time in Alaska, so we must be talking about Judge Lafayette Dawson.)

There’s more to be learned about Alaskan language contact in the book we’re looking at today.

We are preparing to start to-morrow, as the shawaan [Doushagow by name] thinks the swell too heavy to-day, though where or how it could harm us is at present wrapped in obscurity, for none of the white men have travelled by canoe to Nuchuk [Nuchek], and though Nils and Olaf [Carlsen] [Scandinavian traders] speak the language fairly, an Indian is quite incapable of entering into any explanations. The Indian jargon here [Kaiak/Kayak Island] consists of a mixture of Chilcat [Tlingit], Russian, and Chinook [Chinuk Wawa].

— from page 160 of “Shores and Alps of Alaska” by Heywood Walter Seton-Karr (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1887)

Have a look at this, too:

shores and alps page 165

This evening in the tent the shawaan endeavoured to explain, in a mixture of English and Chinook words, that he wished to be, or was, shawaan of all the Chilcats — would I give him a paper? He was promised one when we reached Nuchuk. Could I draw a picture of San Francisco? I replied it was too large. Was it larger than this village? I took up a grain of sand and said “Point Martin;” then a whole handful, and said “San Francisco.” He then said he would paddle us well to Nuchuk if I would only give him a paper [skookum paperto say he was “goot shawaan,” if the man-of-war came. [I.e. in case the US Navy returned to Tlingit territory to again bombard it.] Yes, to-morrow it would be fine [weather], and we would start early .

— from page 165

It’s already interesting that the author was able to identify words of those three origins in the regional contact language.

The geographic context needs to be made clear: Nuchek, Alaska, is on Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound near Cordova. This is Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) traditional territory, i.e. that of speakers of an Eskimoan language. Kaiak or Kayak Island is close by. This area is more or less on the boundary with territories where Eyak (distantly related to Tlingit) and Ahtna Athabaskan (also distantly related to Tlingit) are traditionally spoken. It’s farther from Tlingit traditional territory, where Yakutat lies to the southeast.

Specifically interesting is this word shawaan, defined by Seton-Karr on page 51 as ‘medicine-man’, and here referring to a man from Yakutat in the far northern end of Tlingit territory. The spelling suggests an expected Tlingit pronunciation of “shaman“, which is a word of Russian although originally from a Siberian Tungusic language. (Tlingit has no “M” sound, so it substitutes “W”.) Compare the Alutiiq word, samanaq, which is also from the Russian word, and Eyak xiil; I couldn’t find a word for ‘shaman; medicine man’ in Smelcer’s Ahtna Noun Dictionary, and couldn’t find Kari’s locally (or affordably).

In a  fun twist, Tlingit has its own well-known native word for shamans, xt’, which we actually find far more often in contemporary documentation. In fact, I was unable to find shawaan in Keri Edwards’ wonderful Tlingit dictionary.  (I find a name Shawan for an Alaskan student at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School in 1894, but I’m not certain of a connection.) So the author’s wording may be quite specifically accurate, in suggesting Russian was still spoken in this part of southeast Alaska 20 years after the US takeover, and was supplying loanwords for intercultural contact.

But this word pretty much had to have come to Alutiiq/Eyak/Ahtna territory via a use of Tlingit — which left its stamp shaped “W” on the pronunciation of it — as a contact lingua franca. Fitting pretty well with this idea, the “Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication” speaks of Ahtnas as shifting from their own language to Tlingit by 1911, and Eyaks as users of Tlingit in contacts with Tlingits.

So it looks like shawaan came to Alutiiq land as a foreign (Russian) loanword into local use of a foreign (Tlingit) language which itself may have lacked this word. Odd, huh?

I’m going to take a moment to specify that this discovery doesn’t prove the fairly oft-repeated old claim that Chinuk Wawa contained Russian words. In general, it didn’t, and doesn’t, and nobody besides Seton-Karr has come to my attention demonstrating the presence of such words in a Jargon context.

Seton-Karr’s charming sketchbook can be viewed online. It’s worth a perusal!

So is another of his books, where Tlingit Indians near Haines don’t understand his Chinook Jargon. So we see that the northern end of southeast Alaska really was liminal, a zone where Chinuk Wawa petered out and other languages like Tlingit took over as the main contact medium.

What do you think?