1996: WJ Samarin, “Arctic Origin”, and ♀

Most of what scholars have published about Chinuk Wawa is worth a read if you’re a regular person, too.


hayu masi, mama! (image credit: Walmart)

Some of the fancier words might be hard to grasp, but the ideas are usually simple enough. 

Plus, there just aren’t very many articles on CW.

Recently I’ve been revisiting one of the handful of major ones, William J. Samarin’s “Arctic Origin and Domestic Development of Chinook Jargon“, which appeared in 1996 in a volume of studies on Arctic pidgin languages. 

The title contains the 2 big ideas that Samarin was presenting:

  1. The Jargon has a “probable (or at least possible) Arctic origin”.
  2. Much of its development is to be credited to women, that is, to “domestic relations” between Indigenous women and their Euro-American male partners.

Idea #1

This one doesn’t hold much water for me. It’s very speculative. Samarin’s idea centers on the presence of Russian-dominated hunters & traders of furs along the Pacific Northwest coast from the late 1700s. At first, those
hunters included many enslaved eastern Siberian Natives, especially Kamchadals; from about 1800, they were overwhelmingly majority-Indigenous Alaskan crews. In post-contact Alaskan usage, these were “Aleuts” (influenced by “Alutiiq”, a separate “Eskimoan” language), which traditionally denotes any Native person of the south-central area of that state, and that’s where that trade was first headquartered, at Kodiak. It’s demonstrable that these crews included e.g. Dena’ina Athabaskans of the modern Anchorage area.

Alaskan fur-trade activities shifted circa 1800 to Sitka (New Archangel), where Samarin surmises some pidgin would’ve arisen between “Aleuts” and the local Tlingits. He also supposes that Alaskan Native people would’ve brought such a simple lingo with them southward in their fur expeditions, and that it would’ve “overlapped for a time with other varieties of jargon on the coast, including a Nootka-based jargon” as well as being used at the Russian-American Company’s Fort Ross in California (1812-1841). His supposition is that there must’ve been a bunch of pidgins coming into formation along the coast, and that these would’ve interacted with each other due to the far-ranging visits of Euro-American fur-trading vessels.

Now, it’s known that there are loanwords from the Pomo language of California in Alaska’s Dena’ina, at least those involved in playing a particular kind of stickgame — but we have no overt evidence for a Russian-Company-associated pidgin. So, while Samarin takes care to shoot down other scholars’ idea of a “pre-colonial” (pre-contact) existence of Chinook Jargon as being weak, he’s making an equally flimsy case here. 

In criticizing Samarin’s Idea #1, I want to highlight one specific difference between the Russian approach and those of other Euro-American powers in the Northwest Coast fur “trade”, a word that I’m scare-quoting for a reason. Here’s my understanding: The Russians enslaved large numbers of Alaskans, and deployed them in what was primarily a hunting venture, “cleaning out” an area and leaving it behind in search of not-yet-decimated fur stocks. The British, Americans, and others operated as traders who cultivated ongoing relationships from visit to visit. We positively know from documentary evidence that the Brits & Yanks thus relied on linguistic communication with the Indigenous people of numerous localities as the way to obtain the desired goods. I have yet to see evidence that the Russians had any need whatsoever to barter (or talk) with PNW tribes other than those they had made slaves of and, in some cases, intermarried with. (Samarin in fact notes that the latter families identified as Native but spoke Russian, cf. Ninilchik (Kenai Peninsula) Russian!) And I haven’t seen any indications that either “Russians” or non-Russian traders tried taking “Aleut”/Tlingit words southward.

The one clear example of a PNW coastal pidgin being transplanted by Whites to a new place is the “Nootka Jargon” getting taken to Chinookan and Haida country, pretty early in the contact era. And that was not done by the “Russians”. 

Idea #2

I have less to say here, because there’s little to argue with 🙂 

Samarin is quite right in his idea that we can thank women for Chinuk Wawa as we know it.

His argumentation, fairly novel 25 years ago (36 in its first conference presentation), is now well-known and accepted in CW studies: if it hadn’t been for Native women of diverse ethnicities, there wouldn’t have been the community of stable families around Fort Vancouver whose kids gave rise to a stable, creolized CW. All of this, Samarin backs up with solid facts. 

It’s a superb, and still under-appreciated, point when he observes that the remarkably Indigenous-oriented CW sound system (despite its large number of non-Indigenous speakers) can be accounted for by the fact that all those Ft Vancouver moms spoke PNW languages as well as using the Jargon at home!

Samarin’s highlighting of the roles of genders in this language’s history is a model for further insights into how the Pacific Northwest linguistic landscape took form. 

Bonus fact:

I’ve tried to highlight the influence of women and girls on Chinuk Wawa history, throughout the decade that I’ve been writing this blog. Follow those links to start reading more!

What do you think?