Distinguishing “Métis” from “métis” in the Chinook Jargon world

I often tell you that Chinook Jargon is a “Métis” language; is this the same as a “métis” language?


What served as the Red River Colony flag (image credit: Wikipedia)

Right off, I beg you to be aware that both big-M & little-m versions were historically called “Halfbreeds”. Please acknowledge the “””scare quotes””” around the H-word.

This is because “Halfbreeds” is now genuinely offensive to most folks, whereas in the old documents that I research and share with you here, it was practically the only word in English for those of blended Indigenous and Euro-American ancestry. So, it was pretty neutral back then — albeit in a context where speaking English was an implicit agreement to play by Settlers’ less-than-equitable rules. The truncated synonym “breeds” appears to have been less respectful back then, and by now is less well-known.

Maybe you already know that in North American French, such folks were typically called not just Métis but also Bois-brûlés ‘burnt-woods’, sometimes just Brûlés. (Not to be confused with one of the Lakhota tribes, whose epithet Brûlé Sioux translates their name of Sičháŋǧu Oyáte ‘Burnt Thighs Nation’.)

(If you’ll let me expand on the topic of how mixed-ancestry folks are labeled in colonial situations beyond the Pacific Northwest, I can mention the Basters of Namibia; the Coloureds of South Africa; the Burghers of Sri Lanka; and in the eastern USA, the Black Seminoles and the many “tri-racial isolates” such as the Nanticoke Moors, the Brass Ankles, the Dominickers, and the Jackson Whites.) 

At any rate, let’s resolve that it’s appropriate at this writing (2021) to refer to the mixed-ancestry people of the Pacific Northwest as Métis and/or métis.

Now then.

My purpose today comes out of conversations and research into the fertile subject of who is & who isn’t Métis. As I say, it’s the subject of heated discussion, particularly in present-day Canada (although we definitely have Métis communities here in the States as well!), so I’ll hereby quote a substantial and illuminating chunk from the “Canadian Encyclopedia“, with some highlighting by me that may or may not be helpful: 

The use of the terms “Métis” and “métis” is complex and contentious. When capitalized, the term often describes people of the Métis Nation, who trace their origins to the Red River Valley [in Manitoba] and the prairies beyond. The Métis National Council (MNC), the political organization that represents the Métis Nation, defined “Metis” in 2002 as: “a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal Peoples, is of historic Métis Nation ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation.” The MNC defines the Métis homeland as the three Prairie provinces and parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the northern United States. Members of the Métis Nation have a common culture, ancestral language (Michif), history and political tradition, and are connected through an extensive network of kin relations.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) has been critical of this definition of Métis, asserting that it excludes “many people who have legitimate claims to Métis identity.” Despite CAP’s stance, the MNC’s position is the one that has generally been adopted by federal and provincial governments and the courts. For example, Métis Aboriginal rights defined in the Powley decision and section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 have only been applied to Métis communities west of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While several lawsuits claiming section 35 Métis rights have been brought before the courts by other communities, none have been successful. For example, R. v. Vatour in 2010 ruled against the notion of a Métis community in the Maritimes. Further, the implementation of these rights defined by the Powley decision and by various provincial governments all fall within the MNC’s definition of the “Métis Homeland, ” which includes the Prairie provinces, and parts of Ontario, BC and the NWT.

Typically, when written with a small-m, métis refers to any community of European-Indigenous ancestry, including those in Ontario and Québec and non-status settlements near First Nations reserves. It is often used to describe mixed-descent families and communities during the 18th and early 19th century Great Lakes fur trade, although some scholars now avoid using the term.

Contemporary usage of Métis is also different from its historical meaning. At Red River in the 19th century there were two prominent communities of mixed-descent people. In addition to a sizeable French-speaking and nominally Catholic Métis population, there was a large group of English-speaking “Half-breeds” who were mainly Anglican agriculturists. While these interrelated communities can be considered to be distinct constituencies — even though the boundaries between them were quite porous — the derogatory nature of the term “Half-breed” has caused it to fall largely into disuse. Thus, the contemporary meaning of “Métis” typically includes people of both French- and English-speaking heritage.

There are also Canadian legal definitions that further complicate Métis terminology. Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes “ Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples” as Aboriginal peoples under Canadian law, yet despite several Supreme Court of Canada decisions, Métis Aboriginal rights — and who may possess these rights — remain, for the most part, undefined. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Daniels case that the federal government has jurisdiction over Métis people, and that both members of the Métis Nation and Non-Status Indians are “Indians” as defined by the Constitution Act. The Court stopped short of clarifying the legal definition of Métis, but removed one barrier governments used for generations to avoid dealing with outstanding Métis issues.

My cheat notes on the preceding (adding parenthetical info, from my own reading) —

  • “Métis” = folks of Red River Colony ancestry 
    “métis” = other mixed Indigenous-European ancestry folks, often but not necessarily of fur-trade ancestry.
  • Both usages denote historical community affiliation, and thus shared cultural-political practices,
    not individual genetic inheritance (so, to use the modern USA term, any other “mixed-race” persons would not be included).
  • By corollary, on this website we care that both relate to traditionally distinct & identifiable language varieties
    (all such communities tended to be multilingual throughout history) —
    • among “Métis” people, the “Michif” language
      (which is coming to be recognized as spanning some not-always-mutually-intelligible varieties such as St Laurent Michif French, Michif Cree, and southern Michif which is a structured mix of Cree and French;
      there was also historically a “Bungee” Métis language which was heavily influenced by Orkney Scots).
    • (among “métis” people, hyper-local dialects and accents of earlier generations’ Indigenous languages, of French, and of English.)

There have been both Big-M & little-m communities with roots in the Pacific Northwest, from the earliest days of the overland, but not the slightly earlier maritime, fur trade onwards. And this difference had linguistic consequences.

The Drifters who sailed to the PNW to do business never stayed put long, so they never formed their own stable families and communities. The language relevantly associated with them was the rather nebulous “Nootka Jargon”, let’s call it. Although NJ wasn’t spoken anywhere else, it could have been, with ease, as it was rapidly adjusted to local conditions in whatever port of call it was being tried out in. Thus, NJ could have been a language of the South China coast, or of Hawai’i, places that the same traders routinely called at. (But those places already possessed their own established pidgin languages!) 

The American Fur Co., NW Co., Hudsons Bay Co., et al. personnel who worked here remained, as a rule, for years at a time, often becoming permanent settlers, and normally getting married to Indigenous women. Thus they came to have a distinct community — a métis one, with a little “m” — that lasted generations and spoke a local “language of our own“, i.e. the early-creolized Chinook Jargon. Moreover, many of these fur-trade workers were of small-m métis ancestry in eastern Canada, coming from places like Québec which were still of predominantly mixed Algonquian/Iroquois/French heritage. Like Nootka Jargon, CJ traces back to a slightly earlier practice of talking pidgin in fleeting barter meetups, and in fact CJ at first was just what we’d now think of as a “localization” of NJ. But, drastically unlike NJ, Chinook Jargon was spoken nowhere else than the PNW, and it’s inconceivable that it would’ve been. (Creole CJ was, however, multilocal, being centred at Fort Vancouver but encompassing minimally the Willamette Valley (OR), the Cowlitz-Nisqually corridor (WA), and Fort Langley (BC).) “Chinook” was this deeply tied to historical cultural practices here, and it’s proven far less pliant in the hands of any newcomers who might attempt to mould it in their own image.

The twist in the story of the PNW “little-m” métis community speaking creole Chinuk Wawa is that it always included “Big-M” Métis people. There were always folks from and connected with the Red River Colony, which was of exactly identical vintage with the PNW overland fur trade, being founded in 1811. Of course, given that vintage, you saw RRC-ancestry folks mainly in the Fort Vancouver era (1825+). One important group of Red River colonists came out to form a new colony at Nisqually in 1841, and while they didn’t stay settled right there, they dispersed to the métis communities here. RRC emigrants thus added creole little-m métis identity into their Big-M Métis existence. Also, PNW fur-trade retirees pretty commonly went on to live the rest of their lives at “Assiniboia”, as the RRC was also called, bringing along their small-m métis families and becoming Big-M Métis. 

Summarizing so far:

  • Chinuk Wawa is a little-m métis language.
    • This is because at first, it had a huge connection with mixed-ancestry communities from the “New France” world that centered on Québec,
    • and because folks from those communities helped found a new mixed-ancestry creole community here.
  • Creole CW includes both possible and definite Big-M Métis influences from the Red River Colony.
    • These are most obvious in terms of demographics, in generations 2+.
    • Less clearly, there exist linguistic features of creole CW that are at least equally likely to be RRC Big-M Métis as to be Québecois little-m métis, because the French of the little-m and Big-M folks is quite similar. The same can be said of their English (and a comparison of their English with the dialects present in the Fort Vancouver world). Prominent RRC candidates logically include:
      • the various CW apparently unique Cree- and/or Ojibwe-sourced vocabulary items like tutúsh ‘breast(s), milk’, músmus ‘cow’, sískiyaw ‘spotted horse’;
      • and the CW French-sourced and -associated words that we don’t surely know from New France such as lakamín ‘coarse flour; food made with it’, bibi ‘kiss’, húyhuy ‘trade’, hál ‘pull’, lúʔluʔ-saplél ‘whole wheat’.

Now to specify about the further history of Chinuk Wawa, once it was brought back to Canada, to British Columbia to be precise. (Recall that Fort Langley had been a creole, small-m métis community for a couple of generations.) This happened in distinct ways and stages, with varying outcomes.

  • The Jargon came piecemeal to BC along with such individuals and accompanying mixed households as got reassigned to fur posts in New Caledonia (where many of them had already spent a good deal of time), in the first half of the 1800s. But the evidence indicates that it was “métis” & “Métis” French, called “French of the Mountains”, that was the normal community language and the means of talking with First Nations, and so knowledge of CW dissipated rather than propagated.
  • We can conclude that CW did become a little-m métis language of early Victoria, which as the successor to Fort Vancouver, hosted a small community of lifelong speakers of it for a couple of generations. That community interacted with the little-m métis communities of Fort Langley, Nisqually, etc. in its first years. 
  • Then, CW was reimported en masse via the American-inspired gold rushes, primarily the 1858 Fraser River rush. But this was a new pidginization of the previously creolized language, simplifying it and using it far less for household / community purposes than for interethnic contact. There are no known communities in the province for whom Chinook Jargon is the heritage language. Instead, CJ is a historically very important second language of essentially the entire BC coast and the southern half of the province. This is thus an essentially geographic identity, rather than an aspect of a single cultural group’s ethnicity — but it’s crucially tied with interactions between First Nations and Newcomers. I’ll point out that the BC areas I’ve described don’t overlap with the Big-M Métis settlements (in the Peace River country), and overlap only with the southernmost of the culturally small-m métis communities around the old fur-trade posts (thus with Kamloops, Alexandria, and Prince George, but not with Babine or Fort Nelson). There have existed, however, distinct mixed-race communities adjacent to some BC 

You can take this lengthy meditation as the background to the following information about how métis and Métis people are spoken of in BC Chinuk Wawa.

Since CW tílixam ‘people; person’ fundamentally connotes Native people (we find expressions referring to tilikom pi tkop tilikom ‘people and White people’ in Kamloops Wawa), by extension the mixed-race folks are known sometimes as Sitkom Tilikom ‘half Native people; partway Native people’. That phrase seems to be unique to BC.

There’s an older phrase, Sitkom Sawash (Grand Ronde sítkum-sháwásh), that more explicitly says ‘half-Native’ / ‘halfways Native’. A variation on this that I’ve encountered is Sitkom Sawash tilikom, the ‘half-Native people’. 

So typical for Kamloops Wawa‘s post-frontier variety of Jargon, there’s also a newer, ultra-precise loan from locally spoken English, Haf Brid man ‘half breed man/person’. This was probably heard in other CJ-speaking places and times, I would expect, as it was an inescapable category in Settlers’ social perspective. 

None of these expressions appears to differ in meaning from the others.

An idiom for someone seeming to become less Native was chako Sitkom Sawash ‘to turn Halfbreed’. 


Satyurdi kopit sitkom son, tanas
‘Saturday afternoon, sev-‘

ayu tilikom chako kopa Kol Watir, iht iht
‘eral people came to Coldwater, a few’

tkop man, pi tanas ayu sitkom tilikom
‘white men and several Halfbreeds

— Kamloops Wawa #199c (December 1901), page 97

Death Notice: Annie Webb, North Bend

Iht kluchmin chi mimlus kopa Krapashishin, iaka nim Ani Fink;
‘A certain woman just died at Q’apeʔcícn, named Annie Fink;’ 

Sitkom Sawash iaka; iaka man wait man, iaka lahanshut pi iaka iskom [lekalisti]
‘she was a Halfbreed; her husband is a White man, she confessed and she took communion’ 

pi iaka iskom ikstlim oksion pi iaka mimlus.
‘and then she received last rites and she died.’

 Kamloops Wawa #116 (15 April 1894), pages 67-68

Nsaika slip iht pulakli kopa mawntin, kah mitlait iht kluchmin kopa Kol Watir, tanas kluchmin iaka.
‘We [Father Le Jeune] slept one night in the hills, where there lives a certain woman from Coldwater, she’s a young woman.’

Chi iaka malii kanamokst iht Haf Brid man, pi ukuk kluchmin drit komtaks Chinuk Pipa.
‘She just recently got married to a Half-Breed man, and this woman really understands Chinook Writing.’

— Kamloops Wawa #99 (October 8, 1893), page 164

Kansih tilikom sik tomtom kopa ukuk pipa: klaska nanich Inglish wawa pi Frinch wawa kopa ukuk pipa, 
‘Several people are upset at this newspaper: they see the English language and French language in this paper,’


pi klaska wawa: Klunas ukuk Kamlups Wawa pipa tiki chako Sitkom Sawash alta.
‘and they say: Maybe this Kamloops Wawa paper is trying to turn Halfbreed now.’

— Kamloops Wawa #125 (February 1895), page 18

In English, Kamloops Wawa‘s editor refers to all mixed-ancestry folks as “Halfbreeds”, and in French he says métis

As to who was being referred to in this way, people’s community of origin isn’t always mentioned in Kamloops Wawa‘s pages, but we hear of quite a few “Halfbreeds” in the Canoe Creek area, and we’re told that most of the inmates at the provincial prison in New Westminster are “Indians and Halfbreeds”. In the Kamloops area, too, we hear the then-common accusation that “Halfbreeds” (apparently often relatives of the status “Indians”) and Whites are to blame for Native people’s problems with alcohol consumption, since mixed-bloods could often get around the ban on selling liquor to First Nations folks. A “half-Cree” family living at North Thompson (Chu Chua) is written of once, with Father Le Jeune trying to teach himself enough Cree to talk with them. Certain families are routinely spoken of as Halfbreed, e.g. the Lavigueurs of Kamloops, said to be “Canadians”, i.e. from the East, perhaps Michifs. Le Jeune reports that many more “Halfbreeds” than “Indians” enlisted to fight in World War 1. Numerous French family names which probably go back to the fur-trade days are mentioned in connection with the southern BC First Nations communities, often only in the Chink Pipa writing so that we don’t exactly know how they’d be spelled in French, e.g. Lampro (Lamprant/Lampron), Molino (Molyneaux?), Lapart (?), etc. (Likewise we have on my side of the border many Indigenous surnames from French such as Desautel, Gendron, Sijohn (St-Jean), Marchand, etc.) From Kamloops Wawa, we also have strong indications that métis/Métis French remained in spoken use in southern interior BC beyond 1900, among not just the mixed-blood families but also older Native people with trans-cultural work experience, such as Chief Louis Clexlixqen of Kamloops. 

Bonus fact:

We can also make note of the southern interior BC Native people’s way of talking, and thinking, about métis/Métis people.

The Secwepemctsín Salish language is representative in having a word seme7úẃi, ‘the real Whites’, that refers to “the largely francophone Hudson’s Bay Company or North West Company personnel” who married local women, often chiefs’ daughters. This and the following information is from Ron & Marianne Ignace’s superb book “Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws: Yerí re Stsq́éýs-kucw”, page 346. Page 472 notes that the HBC workers in this region were “mainly French Metis and Iroquois Metis workers” such as Jean-Baptiste St Paul, who (page 522) was a major figure in Kamloops in the mid-1800s.

About that Interior Salish root séme7 — it prototypically gets translated as ‘French(-speaking) people’ in those languages, which often have a totally separate word for ‘White people’. Thus these cultures saw métis/Métis as a kind of person culturally distinct from other Newcomers. In a more recent development, séme7 has been generalized to mean ‘White person(s)’, who are stereotyped as anglophones (and its derivative séme-cn-m ‘to talk in English’ thus parallels the semantics of Chinuk Wawa’s bástən-wáwa, hwait man wawa, etc. for ‘the English language’).

But seme7úẃi has not broadened in this way, nor are mixed-ancestry folks all automatically labeled with the latter term, in contrast with the semantics of English ‘Halfbreed’ or CW’s sitkom sawash et al. There’s a strong conceptual connection among these Salish people between Metis-ness and speaking French, due to that historical connection with Québec and Manitoba.

What do you think?