Turtles all the way down? Ft. Vancouver in Chinook Jargon

mud turtles

Western box turtles a.k.a. mud turtles (source: Confluence Project)

Early settlers testified that the area of Fort Vancouver was known by Indigenous names referring to “mud turtles”; how about we slide into that subject?

First, an environmental acknowledgment that mud turtles, like another historically known species of that area, are now locally extinct from the Vancouver, WA, area that constituted their historical range. Times indeed change. Unlike other now-vanished species of western Washington, though, these little guys are gradually being reintroduced.

Now to the Aboriginal names of this spot. As the website of Historic Fort Vancouver reports,

The region was known to the neighboring Chinook Indians as “Skit-so-to-ho,” and to the Klickitat as “Ala-si-kas,” or the “place of mud turtles.” 

[Cited sources: [William Fraser] Tolmie, “Letter from Dr. Tolmie,” in Transactions of the . . . Oregon Pioneer Association for 1884, 31; see also Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle, 1923), 325.]

About that < Skit-so-to-ho >

We recognize this place name from Chinuk Wawa’s skichútxwa ‘old name of Fort Vancouver and Vancouver, Washington’.

The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary shows us some valuable etymological info for that word:

Origin and original reference obscure. Lionnet (1853:5) has < sketsotwa > ‘Columbia River’. Cf qicútxʷaʔkčútxʷa (Upper Chehalis [Salish — DDR] [Kinkade 1991:107, 335]), < tcha)tchút’hwa > (Tualatin [K’alapuyan — DDR] [Gatschet 1877:94]), skičútxʷa < skItcú:txwa > (Molala [language isolate — DDR] [mj n.d.]) ‘Fort Vancouver’. 

No mention of turtles there! But skichútxwa could indeed be some kind of Indigenous word for that reptile — albeit potentially one with mixed DNA. I say that because I suspect we see the typical Salish s- Noun-marking prefix and the typical Lower Chinookan -xʷa suffix that occurs on certain ‘large animal’ (thus Masculine grammatical gender) zoological species names. (Or is it a myth-character name marker, like -(y)ay in Sahaptian? It’s on the words for ‘raven’, ‘black bear’, ‘rabbit’.) What the presumable noun-stem –qičut might mean escapes me so far.

Overall, though, I can believe that this word is a Salish borrowing of a neighboring Chinookan noun; there are many instances of just such linguistic loaning back and forth. A quick instance: a Clackamas Upper Chinookan tale has (Jacobs 1958-9:64) Grizzly Bear being teased/insulted that his nostrils are akšłúmn ‘as big as soup bowls’, where the noun stem comes from across the Columbia River — it’s SW Washington Salish s-łúm=n ‘spoon, horn ladle or scoop’.

The only Chinookan language in which I’ve clearly and directly found a word for ‘turtle’ is Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan with its í-łaxʷa, which is the etymology suggested by the awesome 2012 Chinuk Wawa dictionary of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for their usual ‘turtle’ word, íłaqwa. Do you see the difference between í-łaxʷa and íłaqwa if I highlight it? 🙂 Could it be that í-łaxʷa should be analyzed as í-łaxʷa, with the ‘animal name’ suffix also?

There’s also some further, indirect Chinookan evidence of turtles, however. Lower Cowlitz Salish of the Fort Vancouver area borrowed a (Kathlamet Lower?) Chinookan wíłax̣ʷu ‘turtle’, which looks like “foreigner” (ungrammatical) Chinookan because it anomalously has 2 different gender prefixes, u- Feminine & i- Masculine! The same word appears to have made its way even farther inland, to the Upper Chehalis Salish. In both these languages, its pronunciation is just possibly influenced by the frequent native Salish suffix -kʷu ‘water’. At all events, Kathlamet too may be a source of the Jargon word for ‘turtle’.

Recapping so far, I haven’t located strong evidence of skichútxwa having referred to ‘turtles’, but the form of the word leaves that connection a possibility. There’s certainly a variety of words for this animal in local languages, as we also find Upper Chehalis Salish < sexeiEtcEn > ‘turtle’ and Nisqually Southern Lushootseed Salish < yicáxtcabc >, supposedly ‘place where the turtles come from’.

Another resemblance that I’ll only note in passing is the tantalizing similarity between Jargon íłaqwa ‘turtle’ and łáwá ‘slow’, both from Chinookan. And there’s also the similar-sounding Jargon łáx̣ ‘out of’ (which is used in the traditional Chinuk Wawa tale “Rabbit and Mud-Turtle Race”). Goodness knows whether anything can be made of this — í-ław-xwa ‘the slow animal’? í-łax̣-xwa ‘the animal that pops/peeks out’??

And about that < Ala-si-kas >

This is definitely a word from the Sahaptian language family. It’s effectively identical in Klickitat (which I think is considered Northwest Sahaptin?), Ichishkíin (Yakama), and Umatilla. The recent dictionaries of the latter two have alashík ‘turtle’, with the additional & adorable Ichishkíin metaphorical use as a ‘canteen’! In Nez Perce it’s ʔá:cix, identifiably similar, yet perhaps revealing a mutated loan between Sahaptian sisters; I note that Nez Perce likewise has the ‘canteen’ metaphor, implying some particularly close relationship with Yakama.

This word, by the by, has (also) been borrowed into many Salish languages: toward Puget Sound into Upper Chehalis & Lushootseed, as well as into most of the Interior Salish languages.

Was this coastal turtle’s shell perhaps a traditional item of trade? There’s said to be scant archaeological evidence of turtles in the Puget Sound area, but the Sahaptian-speaking Klickitats did famously rove far and wide, from near there down to southwest Oregon…

Was this turtle non-native but introduced to the southern Puget Sound area of Nisqually by the Hudson Bay Company as a semi-cultivated food resource, as one study suggests?

Aert Kuipers’ reliable “Salish Etymological Dictionary” of 2002 goes so far as to reconstruct this word to ancient Proto-Salish times, while clearly labeling it a Sahaptian borrowing!

But I think known intertribal and intercultural contacts and marriage in the historical and late pre-contact eras would actually account for its dispersal. Kuipers also notes the Interior Salish tend to pronounce it with a final kʷ rather than its original plain-K sound, and speculates that that’s because it was borrowed into a language that had already changed Proto-Salish *k > č. (Had the word been borrowed prior to that shift, it should’ve become ~*ʔalasíč.) I have to point out that that very idea supports a non-ancient time of borrowing, since that sound change strikes me as having happenened (i.e. in Southeast Interior Salish) circa 1800 AD!

(The separate native Interior Salish word for their local species, the painted turtle, means literally ‘turn over an elongated/cylindrical object’.)

I don’t know how to explain the < -as > at the end of the pioneer spelling of this name. Might it be a Sahaptian locative suffix, as well as the ‘tree/plant’ suffix that I’m familiar with? More research is indicated on this sub-question.


There is somewhat muddy, but convincing, evidence that the location of Fort Vancouver was indeed traditionally associated with turtles. In the course of researching this idea, we’ve found out more about the etymology of Chinook Jargon’s word for ‘turtle’.

Bonus fun:

Were you aware that there’s a traditional Chinuk Wawa story with a main character Mud Turtle?

What do you think?