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:
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?
My wife and I were in this area last weekend! We also noticed a sign for Nesika Beach on the southern Oregon 101, which I haven’t found on the usual lists of CW geographic names.
On a completely unrelated note, I was flipping through ‘Terms of the Trade’ – a dictionary for logging and woodworking terminology – and came came across an entry for ‘Siwash Tree’, which is a tree used to deflect running cables. It seemed worth mentioning, but I’ve never heard this one used in practice.
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That “siwash tree” is really interesting, thanks for sharing it. I expect it comes from the usual uncomplimentary senses of “siwash” among PNW English-speakers. Examples that come to mind include “the siwash table” (the worst seats in a restaurant or chow hall), “geting siwashed” (86’ed from a bar), and so forth.
Indeed mistatim is the word for “horse” in Cree, list. “big dog”. The Cree word for “dog” is indeed “atim”. But isn’t it a long way from “bobtail horse” (which as far as I know is the usual meaning for “siskiyou” (?) to spotted horse??
Hi Peter, yup, that’s my point — everyone’s gotten the meaning (and pronunciation) of siskiyou wrong, taking George Gibbs at his secondhand word rather than researching into Cree themselves. I feel much more comfortable knowing that there’s a Cree — Plains Cree, yeah? — verb sisikâyaw (or is it -ew?) and that that word means ‘spotted’. For 158 years, we’ve been focusing on the wrong element of the lost-horse story!
While we’re getting into some details of Cree, I don’t suppose mistatim ‘big dog’ might be of comparable structure to our famous mustus that’s been proposed as the source of Chinuk Wawa’s musmus ‘cow’???
A note — the earliest published occurrence of < siskiyou > that I know is from 1852, which helps us to date the AC Anderson anecdote. Follow this link.
Also — this early history of Siskiyou County, California, claims that it’s a local Indian word meaning “the council ground”. That sort of poetry always smells like BS to me.