October 1817: Swanimilich speaks “English”

The book is “Voyage autour du monde” (tome premier) by Camille De Roquefeuil (Paris: Béthune et Plon, 1843).


Love a duck! Fine Makah work… (image credit: invaluable.com)

The date is October 7 of 1817.

Roquefeuil’s crew have just left Port Désiré, modern Bamfield, in Nuuchahnulth territory on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, after trading, and communicating in some depth, with the Indigenous people of the “Nootka” area.

(However, I have to tell you that 39 years into contact with Whites, that communication happened with lots of help from hand signs. This may be more a sign of Du Roquefeuil’s poor skills and/or intelligence than of a decline in Nootka Jargon use. Read on.) 

Soon after departing, the failing wind obliged the Drifters’ ship to drop anchor in what a footnote to the text suggests to be Makah territory at the far northwest corner of modern Washington state, USA. 

This is where it gets interesting. On pages 232-234, this happens:




In an English translation:

We got out to sea on the 7th of October, but the wind failing we were soon obliged to come to an anchor. Shortly afterwards a man, who was nearly white, came on board; there was something in his manners and address which indicated a higher degree of civilization. When he came alongside he asked in English, with a kịnd of politeness, to be admitted; I took him down into my cabin, and offered him treacle, biscuit, and wine. He behaved with much propriety, without asking for any thing. He spoke English better than any other Indian, so as to make himself well understood, notwithstanding his bad pronunciation. His name was Swanimilich, and he lived at Tchinouk, behind Cape Flattery, as he gave me to understand, whence he had come to fish. He assured me that there was at that place four Americans, who were left by a vessel from New York. He named three very distinctly, Messrs. Clark, Lewis, and Kean. They had a house of their own, in which they were to pass the winter; he told me that several ships came every year, and mentioned an English vessel, called the Ocean. I never was able to ascertain the truth of these facts, of which the Americans, whom I have seen since, had no knowledge. 

Now, first off, there’s all kinds of racism in these genteel phrases. 

  • “A higher degree of civilization”
  • “A kind of politeness”
  • “Notwithstanding his bad pronunciation” of English, says the Frenchman!
  • And so on.

That’s not the end of it, as you’ll see.

But De Roquefeuil’s information is useful, despite his failure to recognize it. I suspect his own non-native command of English, and that of the visitor, led to that lost opportunity. 

Now, check this out: < Swanimilich > is identifiably a ɬəw’ál’məš (Lower Chehalis Salish) word.

  • Compare, from that language, s- which is the noun-making prefix, and the suffix sequence -əɬ-č ‘(at) water’, as in the word ʔácm’əɬč ‘Shoalwater Bay’.
  • More to the point, check out the word náw-m-əɬ-č ‘any bay’, literally ‘big water’.
  • Many or most nouns in this language can optionally take the s- prefix, and in the Salish languages, roots often historically metathesize (get said backwards, in effect) — so it’s not crazy to suppose that < Swanimilich > is a version of náw-m-əɬ-č; this man may have been saying he was ‘from the bay’. 
  • Let’s keep in mind that published early accounts of PNW life were typeset from handwritten manuscripts, and often the handwriting was mis-read, so it’s entirely possible that what we’re seeing as < Swanimilich > was actually < Snawimilich > in the original document.

This business of Shoalwater Bay being “behind” Cape Flattery is a bit of a stretch if you take it literally, because the two places are something like 100 miles apart.

But, Swanimilich may have actually been speaking Chinuk Wawa, as many “Chinook” people, both Salish and Chinookan by heritage, did by 1817. 

In the pre-Fort Vancouver days, which was before CW was a known entity, many naïve newcomers mis-characterized it as anguished English.  Swanimilich may have been communicating the CW idea of ínatay ‘beyond; (a long ways) behind’. 

Besides this, the author himself mentions the relatively light complexion of Swanimilich, who quite likely could’ve been the child of a visiting sailor, and by consequence might’ve been favored with plenty of English-language knowledge by other visiting crews. 

Other information that De Roquefeuil seems to have been too arrogant and under-informed to understand…

  • Swanimilich, to be fishing in a distant place like Makah land, must’ve either been left there by a Euro-American ship, or else must have forged a post-contact style (long-distance) interethnic marriage. So he was no ignorant yokel. 
  • Coming from a community that had met Euro-Americans already 25 years before and now had sustained contact with Drifters, Swanimilich would’ve had a lifelong acquaintance with “treacle, biscuit, and wine” (məlasis ‘molasses’, lepiskwi, pi wayn), so, unlike some newly contacted Native people, he didn’t lose his composure when offered them. 
  • This man was telling De Roquefeuil about the arrival from New York back in 1811 of the American Fur Company staff, who built Fort Astoria across the river from the Native town of Chinook.
  • Swanimilich was not saying that the New Yorkers were named Clark, Lewis, and Kean!
    • His community remembered Lewis and Clark’s singularly protracted 1805-1806 visit.
    • “Kean(e)” may have been the name of a crewman or captain of some visiting ship — I don’t recognize it but there were many dozens of ships visiting Chinook land by 1817, as Swanimilich himself says — or it may well have been kʰinchuch ‘British person (a King George man)’. 
  • The White people’s ‘house’ mentioned is almost certainly a fur-trade fort, again Fort Astoria. It’s all the same word haws in Jargon. 
  • Swanimilich’s mention of ‘Ocean’, for pity’s sakes, is him using an English word that he knows, instead of saltsəqw / < salt chuck >, because De Roquefeuil is just not catching on to the Jargon that any reasonable Native person would try speaking to him! 

So this brief anecdote, while it’s really precious (being one of the vanishingly few documents of Chinuk Wawa before Fort Vancouver’s 1825 founding), really pisses me off. 

I have the impression that De Roquefeuil was a condescending asshole who assumed that anything an Indigenous person said was mistaken, childish, and/or a lie. He speaks similarly about the Nuučaan’uɬ people, among others.

Another point of view certainly exists among descendants of Swanimilich and his people. I don’t have definite permission to quote, but certainly when I brought this finding of a Chinook person’s name to the attention of some highly knowledgeable descendants, they thought his name resembled that of an ancestor known to them, and they weren’t surprised if a Chinook was married to a Makah. I assign heavy weight to their views.

Bonus fact:

May I point out another total fail by De Roquefeuil? He talks favorably about one important Nuučaan’uɬ man, whose name he says is < Cia > … which is almost certainly Nuučaan’uɬ … and/or Nootka Jargon! … siy’a, meaning ‘me’!

Love a duck!

What do you think?