Black and blue, Kanaka too! An Indigenous metaphor

blue man

(Image credit:

For years I labored under the distorted impression that Hawaiians employed by the Hudsons Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest had been known as “blue boys”…

…and it’s only now that I’m getting around to researching it, and learning the phrase was actually “blue men”.

Iroquois HBC employees are credited with calling Kanakas this, plausibly due to the latter’s tattoos, according to “Ku on the Columbia: Hawaiian Laborers in the Pacific Northwest Fur Industry“, a 2013 Oregon State University master’s thesis in Geography & Anthropology by Donnell J. Rodgers.

The source of that information seems to be a nice early quotation of Antoine Kawanopee (published 1850) by George Hines from the 1842 testimony to Sir George Simpson (in French? Chinuk Wawa?) of Pierre/Peter Kanaquassee, about the murder of John McLoughlin or “McLaughlin”, Jr., on April 20 of that year at HBC Fort Stikine, Alaska. Kawanopee’s original words may have been spoken in an Iroquoian language, and it would be illuminating to research whether traces of an expression for “Bluemen” can be found in such languages, but at any rate this looks to be our earliest English-language evidence of the phrase:


Peter remained there about a quarter of an hour, during which time he was careful not to drink too much, as a few hours previously Antoine had called at his room and said, “My Uncle, take care of yourself to-night; the master is going to die.” Peter said, “Who is going to kill him?” and Antoine said, “The Bluemen,” meaning the Kanakas, “are going to kill him.” 

— page 397

Not only do we not know if the above was said in Jargon, I’ve never even discovered a Chinuk Wawa equivalent of “blue men”, such as a hypothetical *pchíx̣-mán or plural *pchíx̣-tílixam.

It’s not outlandish to imagine that such phrases would have been ways to speak of brown-skinned newcomers in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s why I suggest this:

One of the local Southwest Washington Salish (“Tsamosan”) languages, Upper Chehalis, has in its dictionary a word s-q̓ʷíx̣ translated as ‘Negro’ (NOUN-blue, so, literally ‘the blue one(s)’).

It seems well-nigh beyond coincidence that in the same exact region of the Earth — Chinuk Wawa country — we find from Upper Chehalis and Iroquois people two distinct pieces of evidence for an Indigenous metaphor of non-Indigenous, non-European-descended folks being described as ‘blue’.

Make that three: did you realize, in fact, that both James G. Swan’s 1857 vocabulary and George Gibbs’ 1863 dictionary of Chinook Jargon give < klale > as meaning ‘black’ but also ‘dark colored’, ‘dark blue’, and even ‘dark green’ in the frontier era?! That’s the word we now typically take as ‘black’, łíʔil. But the range of colors labeled by it are clearly not influenced by the Jargon’s European source-languages; this has to be an Indigenous metaphor.

Thus the literal expression ‘black people’ in this typical passage from Kamloops Wawa:

Ukuk pipa iaka nim Kamlups Wawa. Tanas lili alta iaka kuli kanawi kah kanawi mun iaka
This paper’s name is Kamloops Wawa. For a little while now it’s been all around each month,

lolo tlus siisim kopa kanawi 
kah ilihi. Iaka hilp tilikom pus chako komtaks aiak mamuk cim

carrying good news from every place. It helps people learn to write fast.  

pipa. Iaka tlus kopa kanawi tilikom, kopa tkop tilikom, kopa tlil tilikom pi kopa
It’s good for everyone, for White people, for Black people, and for 

Sawash tilikom.
Native people.

— Kamloops Wawa #146, November 1896, first page of front cover

That s-q̓ʷíx̣ that I mentioned is only one of several words for African-Americans in Upper Chehalis and the local languages, each of which seems to sport several synonyms for it.

Some are quite possibly calqued (“loan-translated”) from English, as they literally use the root-word for the color ‘black’, sometimes in complex forms meaning ‘black face’, ‘black body’, and one seemingly ‘black bottom’.

At least one of those languages also uses the known Chinuk Wawa borrowing from American informal English, of the N-word.

But in any event, it looks like we’ve now found some evidence that an important Indigenous perception of both Pacific Islanders and African-Americans was that they were “blue” people.

Bonus point: Fort Vancouver, Washington, had a “Kanaka Town“. You could reasonably guess that that’s a Chinuk Wawa phrase, which is a solid hypothesis. However, as with frontier ethnic place names like “Frenchtown” and “China this or that”, it turns out there were multiple “Kanaka Towns”: in California, Australia, etc. As far as we can tell, all these were English names.

What do you think?