One scholar’s commentary on Gibbs using CW in N. California

Click to access ucp014-004.pdf

Here’s one expert who concludes Indian Commissioner Redick McKee’s use of George Gibbs as a Chinuk Wawa interpreter with NW California tribes was, well, Redick-ulous 🙂

redick illo

Llewellyn L. Loud, whose name I instantly llove, published “Ethnogeography and Archaeology of the Wiyot Territory” in 1918 (University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 14(3):221-436). 

Loud, who obviously put plenty of focused attention into researching the Wiyot Indians of that region near Oregon, has a firm opinion: 


The entire scientific staff consisted of one person, George Gibbs, a practical topographical engineer who had previously been attached to the Indian commission in Oregon, and who was acquainted with the Chinook jargon which it was erroneously supposed would be of service in communicating with California Indians. Gibbs mingled freely with the Indians, dividing his time between map making and language study, although hampered by lack of interpreters.

In looking at the records of that expedition, it’s true that I’ve previously noted that there’s not a great deal of Chinuk Wawa to be found in them. 

But I differ with Loud’s broad characterization, in that I do see genuine traces of CW there. Gibbs quotes at least 6 separate words of Jargon in use among the Indians, and mentions various individuals who spoke CW. 

Some NW California Native people clearly did understand Jargon, as well they might.

These tribes lived in proximity to 3 sources of Jargon knowledge:

  • SW Oregon settlements (where the language definitely had a presence already)
  • N California’s gold-rush zone (locus of intense intercultural contact from 1849 on)
  • the Sacramento-area fur-trading region (active from the 1820s, and bearing traces of CW for decades after)

By the way, Loud inadvertently undermines his own claim when, on page 289, he notes a local place name recorded by Gibbs as < Kashareh >, which in 1858 showed up on maps as Chinuk Wawa < Mowitch > ‘deer’.

Since that’s not from the Wiyot language, Loud says “this is a name given by the whites” — and yet, doesn’t this demonstrate the presence of the Jargon as an interethnic language in this very area in frontier times?

So, as with many non-specialist scholars’ work, I advise some caution in accepting Loud’s views about Chinook Jargon in Northwest California.

What do you think?