Earliest, best evidence of the Alaskan phrase “skookum paper”

A phrase I learned from doing research in Alaska is “skookum paper”.

This would be skúkum pípa in Grand Ronde style, with the first word modifying the second to give ‘a powerful paper’ as the sense.

In Chinook Jargon, the stress on the phrase would therefore land on the second word.

In Alaskan English as I heard it in 2003, it was treated like a compound, “skóokum paper”. With English pronunciations and everything.

“Skookum paper” must’ve first been an Alaskan idiom in the Jargon, though. I think so partly because the following document uses another Jargon-ism that I’ve written about, “smoke houses“.

This is some government correspondence documenting the local use of “skookum paper” that I know of in southeast Alaskan Lingít territory — virtually all known instances are connected with Tlingits.

Images 410, Land Case File, Tongass National Forest, Alaska, Box 77, archives.gov.


The 1938 original correspondence referred to can be viewed in image 412.

We can extend the known use of “skookum paper” a good deal farther into the past. I’ve found a number of occurrences in Alaskan newspapers, and here’s the earliest I’ve got, from what you can think of as the frontier era in Alaska (the population was still majority Native). Note that the phrase is used as if every reader will understand it:


— from the Skagway (AK) Daily Morning Alaskan of April 17, 1903, page 4, column 3 (this same article goes on to use the Jargonism “skookum house” for ‘jail’)

The earliest known “skookum papers” in Alaska date back to the early US period, circa 1879. It’s a virtual certainty that this Chinuk Wawa term for them dates to that same era, because CW wouldn’t have been used with the, shall I say, standoffish and exploitative Russians, who ruled the place until 1867.

Similar letters of recommendation from Whites were written all over the Pacific NW, and from earlier times. But the best evidence for them being called by a Jargon name, so far, is among the Alaskan Lingít.

Bonus fact:

Of related interest, “skookum boards“, too, are only known as such in Lingít Alaska — although they, too, were a visually prominent part of the built environment earlier, to the south, particularly in Kwakwaka’wakw country in BC. I’m not convinced that these had much of a Jargon connection down there, however, as the “Kwakiutl” people were perhaps the last to experience much contact with Whites. (For a rough indicator of this, I’d point out that the first published information on the Kwak’wala language wasn’t until 1857, whereas most other BC coast tribes were fairly well documented by the 1820s or ’30s.) And I don’t recall many traces of Jargon on Kwakwaka’wakw skookum boards, just an ambiguous “Boston” on a house at Xwamdasbe. So again, “skookum boards” (skúkum laplásh?) seem like a Tlingit thing.

Also this: skookum papers, under other names, are still being written. In the news I often hear of Afghan people who receive letters from US military personnel, vouching for their good character and trustworthiness.

kata maika tumtum? What do you think?