BC word discovery: “Siwash potatoes” = spring beauty (& other observations)

digging for mountain potatoes

“Digging for mountain potatoes” (image credit: BC Food History)

An Early Settler Takes up Land” is a 1950 memoir by the late T.H. Butters…

…and in the case of the southern interior of British Columbia, arriving in 1892 qualified you to consider yourself an early settler.

Which goes to show you that the “frontier era” was not a definite set of calendar years, but a set of conditions that occurred and faded variably with your location. As a rule of thumb, historians consider the US frontier to have “closed” in 1890, for instance, but BC remained much less settled for some time after.

Tom Slack, an Irish immigrant married to an Aboriginal woman (page 80), plays a major part in the narrative. On page 82, he’s remembered as inviting the author to hunt for “Sakakoos, a grizzly bear — very old and cunning so the Indians said”; that name is puzzling to me, as it looks unlike local Salish words for the species. In shape it resembles Cree words, though I’ve found none similar to it; it’s also similar to certain Dene (Athabaskan) terms like < sass tsho >, literally ‘big bear’.

The same local guide introduces Butters to a local species and the probably Chinuk Wawa name for it:

siwash potatoes

page 82

To me, this is far and away the most important point in the article.

In BC Chinook Jargon, < siwash potatoes > is two well-documented words that would form a valid phrase together, literally ‘Indian potatoes’. Whatever the plant was, this phrase is in fact known from more than one other source from the same time and region (here’s another, comparing them to “a lady’s slipper”), suggesting that it is a previously unnoted bit of Jargon from the Canadian side of the boundary.

It’s presumably connected with the phrase “siwash wappato“, noted by E.H. Thomas’s Chinook Jargon dictionary (1970 [1935]:102) as a way to distinguish a native plant (Sagittaria latifolia, says Thomas) from the introduced potato. But it’s probably denoting a different species from that marsh denizen in BC, seeing as Butters’s first experience of it is linked with a mountainous terrain, not a riverine one. It’s probably not camas either, since that species is apparently uncommon in BC away from the coast. Hmm. Given the local English phrase “Indian potato” for Claytonia lanceolata, spring beauty, in the Interior, I’d associate our new Jargon phrase with that plant — otherwise locally known as “mountain potato”!

A separate subject noted as “quite interesting” was a Mr. [William Fraser?] Cameron, whose store did “a lot of business with the Indians” (page 81). By implication, that man probably spoke Jargon.

Another person appearing in the memoir is a local Indigenous man, Mowise (page 81 and following). I expect this is Butters’s way of spelling the baptismal name Moïse, the French version of ‘Moses’, given by one of the Oblate missionary priests — perhaps Kamloops Wawa‘s Father Le Jeune. In the following it seems as if Secwepemctsin (Shuswap Salish) and Chinook Jargon both were used in telling stories to an ethnically mixed group of listeners:

butters 01

page 82

Although Butters did not remain terribly long, leaving his land claim in 1896, his recollections are valuable.

What have you learned?