1860s: Sign language at Musqueam

Alex Code of PoCo Heritage contributed this item…


Khaltinaht (image credit: Pioneers Gallery)

This has to do with a recollection of hand gestures, a kind of sign language either impromptu or conventionalized, being used in the Musqueam Indian Reserve area of modern-day Vancouver, BC.

portuugese joe

“Mother and father were out in a canoe. Afterwards father said, by signs to the old chief (Chief Kiapilano) that he wanted my mother for his wife, and could he have her — all by signs. Then the old chief said, by signs, that he could; waved his hand arm [sic] with a motion signifying to “take her”. He motioned with his right arm; waved, quickly, upward and outward.”

“She was a pretty girl with dark eyes, and hair down to her middle; large, deep, soft eyes. Her name was Mary Ann, in English. I don’t know what it was in Indian. But my aunt’s name was Lumtinat. My grandfather (mother’s father) was Musqueam. He was a son of old Chief Kiapilano and I suppose his name was Kiapilano too, but don’t actually know. My mother’s mother was Squamish.”

This story is said to refer to Joe Silvey’s betrothal to his first wife, Khaltinaht.

Alex notes, “This from Conversations with Khatsahlano / “Early Vancouver”, Vol. 5, 291 and is talking about Portuguese Joe who came to BC ~1860. Interesting they were communicating in signs and not in Chinook (or maybe it was both!). I had a look and the sign described here seems like the Plains Indian Sign for ‘good’.”

The way the anecdote is told, I infer that the immigrant “Portuguese Joe” Silvey had not yet learned enough of any relevant language, such as Chinuk Wawa, to be able to talk with Chief Kiapilano (Qiyəplénəxʷ, “Capilano”).

But we often hear of hand gestures having accompanied Chinook Jargon use as well…

What do you think?