1892: Nearly all Tlingits speak Chinuk Wawa

four tlingit women

Four Tlingit women sitting in Indian River Road, Sitka, Alaska, between 1882 and 1892 (image credit: UW Libraries)

In debunking a rumor that the missionary Sheldon Jackson had been murdered by Alaska Natives, we learn a huge linguistic reason why it’s preposterous.

Even before the Klondike gold rush, it’s argued that most Tlingits talk Chinook Jargon and some English, among other indications of their general good will toward Whites.

1892 Tlingits Chinook

There are three prominent aboriginal races in Alaska, viz.: the Eskimos, Thlinkets and Haidas. The Thlinket race is the one occupying the country from Yakutat, near Mount St. Elias, down to a few hundred miles south of Juneau. The members of this race are all more or less civilized, wear white men’s apparel and can nearly all talk Chinook and a little English. For the past eight or 10 years they have been peaceably disposed to the “Boston men,” as the white people are called, and are employed very largely in the mines, sawmills and canneries there. 

— from the San Francisco (CA) Morning Call of May 29, 1892, page 8, column 1

This claim rings largely accurate to my ears.

The Lingít (Tlingit) do seem to have been among the more acculturated Native groups in the AK panhandle area.

Certainly they had been dealing with Russians quite a bit for many decades.

And they were the channel through which knowledge of Chinuk Wawa reached other Alaskan Natives:

Lingít-influenced pronunciations of Jargon words, for instance, are easy to find outside Lingít territory, indicating these folks’ important role in intercultural communication.

Which makes real sense, as the Tlingits had a pattern of dominating neighbouring tribes’ access to outside commerce.

To CJ as well: while the Jargon was scarcely known in Southeast Alaska at the time of the handover from Russian to US political control in 1867 — probably centring on the Hudson Bay Company-influenced Stikine River area — it caught on reasonably quickly with the increase in visits from English- and CJ-speaking seal hunting ships, miners, tourists, and so on.

The Jargon is certainly documented as being used in official contacts between Tlingits and the primary US governmental arm in Alaska Territory, the Navy.

All in all, the analysis put forth in today’s 1892 news clipping holds water for me.

PS: for a nice trilogy about Chinook Jargon on the north coast, showing Haidas and Tsimshians not familiar with it, see the previous two posts on this same blog.

What do you think?