1944: Rena V. Grant, “The Chinook Jargon, Past and Present” documents the early spread of CJ in BC

The English professor who discovered a lost Walt Whitman poem also wrote some good scholarly articles on Chinook Jargon.


Some background on the author (image credit: West End Vancouver)

One of them is “The Chinook Jargon, Past and Present“, by BC-born Rena V[ictoria Alice] Grant, in the California Folklore Quarterly 3(4):259-276 (October, 1944).

This article of hers isn’t her finest scholarship. But it does have its points!

Grant supposes that there was aboriginally a connection between “the Nootka” of Vancouver Island, BC, and the lower Columbia River Chinooks, but her evidence is circular. She sees the occurrence of Nuuchahnulth-derived words in early Euro-American contacts with Vancouver Island and Columbia River tribes as evidence of some aboriginal connection between the two places, whereas all historical evidence points to Whites as having brought those “Nootka” words to the Columbia. Also, like some other researchers, she mistakes Gray’s Bay on the Columbia (where Capt. Vancouver’s people met Chinooks) for Gray’s Harbor up the coast. She mangles Bolduc’s “le jargon tchinouc” into “le tchinouc jargon”. And she quotes an awful lot of secondary sources, without always checking their accuracy.

But Grant also provides us precious tidbits that are new contributions to the Jargon scholarly literature. There’s some Chinuk Wawa material from early California newspapers that we hadn’t been exposed to previously. On pages 264-265 she quotes several such, educating us about the social setting of CW use at that place and time.

Here’s an early Fraser River gold rush report that conveys how totally dependent the White cheechakoes were on BC Indigenous people, and how rare any knowledge of Chinuk Wawa still was in that province. (I remind you, as linguist William Turkel showed in 2004, White gold rushers are the biggest single reason why CW became as hugely important a British Columbia language as it did.)


An Indian has just arrived in a canoe, and he tells me the sluice is in operation, and that they are taking out hi-yu (plenty) gold.’ … Parties coming up the Frazer river should have canoes, if possible, and manned by Indians. … In going up the river they should never interfere with their Indians, but permit them to go by any route they see fit to select, and to load the canoes as they please. When at Fort Hope, they should be very careful to select good and smart Indians, and to have one who can speak the Chinook jargon.

— quoting the San Francisco (CA) Evening Bulletin of May 18, 1858

Here’s another of the first arrivals during that gold rush, depicting how communication with BC Native folks there was typically happening in quickly-learned Chinuk Wawa, or not at all; his spellings are improvised, indicating that these are real on-the-spot quotations:


Another gentleman formerly of Sacramento informs us that he and his brother went up about a month since and without delay proceeded up the Frazer River. … On the banks of the River as you go up, he says there are villages of Indians. They seemed averse to ‘Boston men.’ He says they were always asking in a whining tone of voice for ‘Muck a muck,’ ‘Tenass muck a muck,’ and that when they gave them plenty to eat they would still ask with the coolest effrontery for more. If they were refused they would say, ‘Wake closh Boston man,’ ‘High-harsh closh King George man;’ ‘King George man hi you muck a muck‘ (American no good. English man very good. English man plenty food) and then with a look of disdain and half smothered hate they would go to work paddling again. … He spoke of many men who have married ‘clootchmen’ (Indian women).

— quoting the San Francisco (CA) Daily Times of June 10, 1858

A “Fort Langley miner” is cited with a slangy take on the illegal US immigrants’ disdain of British authority over them, and an implied confirmation that Chinook Jargon was so far of limited but genuine use in on the Fraser:


Mining license is $5 a month, which the American peeps won’t pay. King George’s men may if they like, but Boston menno. … But [i.e. only] very few Indians here speak the Chinook lingo.

— quoting the San Francisco (CA) Daily Times of June 24, 1858

Then there’s a resumption of the persistent theme that an American can easily snag himself an Indigenous woman, with the Jargon word ɬúchmən ‘woman’ having already become a synonym for the racist S-word in the mouths of the Yankees:


…the ‘clootchmen‘ are nearly all good-looking.

— quoting the San Francisco (CA) Daily Times of July 3, 1858

“A somewhat lengthy letter with the heading ‘July 4, 1858, Bellingham Bay’ ” in Washington Territory, a town popular as a staging area on the way to the Fraser, provides further confirmation that it was still rare and valuable to find a BC Native guide who could speak Chinuk Wawa:



The second engineer and myself took a canoe for Fort Hope, but had not gone more than a mile before the Indian said the canoe was too deeply laden, and stopped at an Indian rancho [village]. … We got out of the canoe for the purpose of getting another, and while we were on the beach this Indian cleared out, and we could get none of the others to budge. In about half an hour, a canoe came along with four men from the steamer, in company with a canoe in which were six white men, and also a skiff with three more. We made a bargain with an Indian to take us to Fort Hope. … We kept company with the other canoe and skiff. About six o’clock they camped for the night, and our Indian wanted to stop also. … The canoe with white men in had an Indian pilot who could talk the jargon, so I told him that we would given them a ‘cultis potlatsh’ (a gift for nothing) of $2 if they would take us to Fort Hope that night.

— quoting the San Francisco (CA) Daily Times of July 17, 1858

An important original observation by Grant is on page 265, that “recently … the spelling of words in the Jargon has become comparatively standardized.” Don’t underestimate the impact of that development! It emerged largely due to the proven large-scale plagiarism over several decades among the published, i.e. English-speaking White-audience, dictionaries. (As documented in amazing detail in Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation.) And the resulting effect on the public’s perception, as well as that of scholars, of what CJ is like, was similarly strong. I feel that the aftershock of making the Jargon look like a standardized and English-oriented code is felt in such misguided scholarly publications as Michael Silverstein’s 1971 lengthy, hypertechnical, and indeed influential claim that CJ has no grammar!

One last mistake I feel obligated to fix — on pages 266 and following, we have Grant’s personally selected list of “Chinook terms now familiar in British Columbia” with a few comments or personal anecdotes regarding each. I’m stunned that she includes < siskiyou >, a word we never see used anywhere outside of George Gibbs’s secondhand Northern California/Southern Oregon report of it in his 1863 Jargon dictionary! Her main goal in doing this is to put forth a novel, implied, and wrong etymology in a Nuuchahnulth (thus BC) word for ‘sky’. :/

The rest of Grant’s article is filled up with lengthy reproductions of songs etc. from other folks’ publications.

What do you think?
Kartar miker turn-turn? 😀