McArthur’s “Oregon Geographic Names” (part 7 of 8)

We’ve made a number of interesting discoveries as we’ve worked through the preceding six installments of this mini-series; now let’s see what awaits us in our next-to-last episode…

pioneer hotel

Sitkum (sítkum ‘half, middle, halfway’; in Coos County) on page 673 has a colorful back story, being named after a tavern (a “halfway house”) between Roseburg and Coos City, opened by J.A. Harry circa 1873. I wonder if he actually called it the “Sitkum House”?

Contrast that use of the word with Sitkum Creek (Lane County) on page 674, which is said to have been so called because it was a “rather piddling” stream! The word sitkum has indeed commonly enough been used to express ‘sorta’.

Because both Sitkum places are in old-school fluent Jargon country, I lean towards believing both explanations.

cape blanco

Another place mentioned on page 674 is Sixes River in Curry County, near Cape Blanco. A facile etymology in Chinuk Wawa has historically been claimed, that this is really the Sikhs (síks or shíksh ‘friend’) River, but this lacks corroboration. It’s much more compelling that this is Coast Athabaskan country, and the Indigenous name of the place is documented as Sa-qua-mi, with the local tribe calling themselves the Sik-ses-tene ‘people by the far north country’. I agree with McArthur’s evaluation:

This is probably the real origin of the name, but the form of spelling, Sixes, was doubtless applied during the southern Oregon gold rush [around 1850 — DDR] by miners who were familiar with the Chinook jargon word for friend. The spelling Sixes was used as early as October, 1855. See Harper’s Magazine, October 1856, page 591. [“Wild Life in Oregon” by William V. Wells, pages 588-608 of that issue; that article is the source of the illustrations in my post today.]

I can add that several place names in the same Oregon Coast region have a parallel origin in White folks’ mis-etymologizing Athabaskan names as English and/or Chinuk Wawa, which led to early Settlers calling nearby places Euchre and Coquille.

indian dance

On pages 675-676, we find Skookum (skúkum ‘strong’ or skukúm ‘monster’) Lake in Clackamas County. I’ll quote McArthur’s opinions at length:

It is named with the Chinook jargon word which originally meant a strong or powerful malign deity, and later came to mean simply strong or stout. When used in connection with localities, the word skookum generally indicated a place inhabited by a skookum, or evil god of the woods. It sometimes meant a place used as a burial ground. There are several geographic features in Oregon described with this name. Indians avoided skookum places and considered them haunted. A Skookum Chuck did not mean a strong, swift stream, but a place to stay away from. The modern meaning of the word skookum is quite different from the earlier connotation. In contradistinction to a skookum, a hehe was a good spirit and a Hehe Chuck was a fine place for games, races and other sports and festivities.

That’s dense! It’s appropriate to throw a couple of disclaimers on top of those ideas:

  • First, McArthur doesn’t happen to tell us how old this place name is, and it could be from Settler English, where the borrowed word skookum actually means ‘excellent’.
  • Second, a skookum chuck (skúkum-tsə́qw) is most definitely both literally ‘strong water’ and idiomatic ‘rapids in a river’ — a place that is inherently, not supernaturally, dangerous to water travellers but not really to anyone else.
  • Third, I have never encountered a supposed Chinuk Wawa phrase *skukúm-tsə́qw* ‘dangerous monster(‘s) water’, and in fact such places tend to be called cultus (kʰə́ltəs ‘worthless’) or mesachie (masháchi dangerous’).
  • Fourth, I have never encountered a supposed Chinuk Wawa phrase *híhi-tsə́qw*, which would mean ‘laughter-water’ or ‘fun-water’, and I’ve never ever found heehee to used for any kind of spirit creature. I suspect that McArthur in the above passage is overgeneralizing from the very well known place name, the proverbially lucky Hee Hee Stone, in frontier-era northeastern Washington. He may also be unwittingly influenced by the super duper popular late- and post-frontier name “Minnehaha” (from the poem “The Song of Hiawatha”), which was often claimed to mean ‘laughing waters’; this was a romanticized trope that was near and dear to Settler hearts.

fight on battle rock

Also on page 676 is the way more prosaic Skookumhouse [or Skookum House] Butte in Curry County, “near the mouth of Rogue River”. This is a neat little discovery, as it doesn’t refer to the common CW expression skúkum-háws ‘jail’, but instead to that phrase’s literal meaning of ‘strong-house’. The reason is that Native people “built a fort or stockade on the south bank of the stream about fifteen miles from the ocean…White settlers drove the Indians out and took the fort. See Port Orford News, December 14, 1926.”

an unwelcome encounter

We find Spirit Mountain (Yamhill County) on page 689, with the etymological explanation that “the Indians thought spirits or skookums lived on it”. We should clarify that the mountain is called in Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa t’əmánəwas-lamotʰay, that is ‘spirit power mountain’, and GR folks have always told me that this is because Indigenous youth traditionally go up there on what some people call vision quests, seeking a most welcome encounter with a guardian spirit. (Fun side note — I was in the 1985 movie “Vision Quest”. Also in the 1985 movie “Turk 182”. Life is funny.)

Page 713 tells us about Talapus Butte in Deschutes County, i.e. the CW word for ‘coyote’. It’s cross-referenced to Mount Talapus in Multnomah County; both I suspect are post-frontier US Forest Service names.

We find Tamanawas Falls (Hood River County) on page 714, originally spelled Tamanawaus. It’s another USFS-bestowed modern name, which uses the same word t’əmánəwas ‘guardian spirit’ that I just mentioned.

The same page present Tamolitch Falls, Linn County, yet another modern USFS name, said to mean “tub or bucket” in CW (t’ámulch).

salmon spearing by torch-light

On page 718, we see Clatsop County’s Tenasillahe Island (tənəs-íliʔi, the normal Chinuk Wawa term for any ‘island’, literally ‘little-land’). McArthur erroneously concludes that this place’s low, marshy terrain explains the name, that is, he thinks it means ‘low land’, which I would expect to be *kíkwəli-íliʔi* in Jargon. I believe this particular place name is an extremely old one, in CW terms, going back at least to the Fort Vancouver era, as it’s in just the same area as a large number of other early CW place names.

Page 719 discusses the non-Chinuk Wawa word Tenino. Please ignore. 🙂

Tillicum Creek on page 730 (Lane County) is accompanied by commentary about the meanings of this word in Chinuk Wawa, “people, or tribe or even relatives. With the passage of time the word came to mean also friendly people or even a friend. The older Chinook jargon word for friend, applied to persons rather than things, is siks or six.” That last bit, I think, refers to McArthur’s comments about Sixes, above. He doesn’t give any information on how old this place name is, but it’s in a protected area of national forest and designated wilderness, with a number of USFS-style CW names around it, so what do you think?

Tipsoo Peak in Douglas and Klamath Counties (page 732) carries the CW word for grass, as McArthur says. It’s likewise out in the boonies, and so is probably another USFS name.

a blubber feast

What do you think?
qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?