At last, the Cree etymology of Siskiyou

A much-debated Chinuk Wawa word, considering how rare it is, is the name of the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine Counties, and into northern California.


Lake Siskiyou, CA, with the Siskiyou Mountains in the distance (image credit: The Siskiyou Daily News)

The best etymology offered for this word is George Gibbs’s attribution in his dictionary of CW (1863:23), citing the highly experienced and intelligent Alexander Caulfield Anderson:

gibbs siskiyou

It’s said to be a Cree word used by the almost certainly Métis employees of the Hudsons Bay Company, many of whom knew Algonquian languages from back home in the east.

The specific referent is said to have been a bob-tailed race horse belonging to chief factor Archibald R. McLeod, which was lost in a snowstorm.

Gibbs accordingly calls < siskiyou > a Chinuk Wawa word and defines it as ‘a bobtailed horse’.

But the best match that McArthur’s “Oregon Geographic Names” book finds in Lacombe’s 1874 Cree dictionary is < sisikiyâwatim >, which has the rather different meaning of “a spotted horse or possibly a pack-horse”.

You have to check the sources that people cite, to evaluate how trustworthy their interpretations are, so here’s that 1874 entry to show you that McArthur advanced our knowledge by getting it partly right:


SISIKIYÂWATIM, [-]wok, (n. f.)
cheval tacheté, pivelé, mot du

[Translated into English —

spotted horse, peeled, word of the

I don’t yet know enough Cree grammar to know a literal meaning (etymology) of sisikiyâwatim, but I know that the word for ‘horse’ in the same dictionary if mistatim, which looks mighty like that ending -atim. Compare this with ‘dog’, atim; many Native American languages used their word for ‘dog’ to name the new arrival of horses. 

And I’m aware that there’s initial-syllable reduplication expressing an “on-going action or state” (so the first si- can be separated out.

And lots of Cree verbs end in -ew, -iw, -aw, etc.

So maybe we’re looking at a Cree word that means something like ‘a horse that’s spotted’. For a similar construction, see Cree masinâsowatim ‘a spotted horse, i.e. a pinto’. 

And ‘spotted’ would appear to be the verb sisikiyâw. 

Which, once we start seeing past the usual present-day English pronunciation [sískiyu], and recognize that vowels sometimes get dropped in casual Cree speech, is a perfect match: 

[sískiyaw] <=> < siskiyou >

Another point: that descriptor, mot du pays ‘country word’, seems to be used just once in the whole dictionary (as far as I’ve found), but another scholar indicates that it meant neologisms and/or Canadianisms in that era. I mentally connect it with the very common expression in that era of Canadian French history, un mariage à la façon du pays ‘country-style marriage’ without church or legal officiation. 

For a missionary such as Lacombe who was extremely fluent in Cree to label a single word this way suggests that it may have had more to do with Métis culture than with what were seen as aboriginal Cree ways.

Seeing as how the great majority of horse-related words in Chinook Jargon are of Métis-Canadian origin, I think we might tentatively accept this word as CJ too, even though Gibbs may have misunderstood its exact meaning, and even though it appears in no other documents of this language.

< Siskiyou > would thus become one of the very few Cree-derived words that we know of in the Jargon.

Bonus research question:

Could [sískiyaw] ~ < siskiyou > by any chance have been a borrowing of the French word caillé ‘spotted’, which we definitely know in Jargon as another horse term, likʰáy?