Métis/Canadian French and Indigenous customs of tobacco-smoking

The published collection of “Kalapuya Texts” contains, as text #29, a description of aboriginal customs around tobacco use.


(Image credit: Amazon)

The English translation that’s provided for the first sentence goes like this: 

“Long ago when the people smoked their tobacco, they mixed in it (lε•′lup ‘kinnickinnick’) leaves.” (Jacobs 1945:35)

This sentence really interests me because in the original K’alapuyan language, only the borrowed Chinook Jargon word for ‘tobacco’, k’áynuɬ, is used — the inflected form being < Gúc-Dinik’ai′nu•ɬ >. 

This lε•′lup for ‘kinnickinnick’ doesn’t show up in the K’alapuyan sentences! It must have been provided to linguist Melville Jacobs by the K’alapuya speaker as an explanatory comment. 

Can you recognize in lε•′lup the Chinuk Wawa lárp ‘kinnikinnick leaves’, adapted to K’alapuyan phonology? Both are indigenized versions of French l’herbe, which occurs in many North American French terms for plants from shrub size on down. 

Another Jargon loanword is used in the same K’alapuyan text about “Smoking”, which also is an originally Canadian/métis French word: < lε′Bi•B >, i.e. Jargon lapʰíp ‘pipe’, from French la pipe.

And this brings us to today’s point: 

While tobacco use is certainly an ancient Indigenous custom, as the already mentioned Santiam K’alapuya text makes clear by describing it as a group spiritual practice… 

…smoking for personal pleasure is an introduced Euro-American activity,
and one that was strongly identified with the largely métis laborers of the fur trade. 

A relevant métis cultural note here: distances in canoe travel were measured in numbers of “pipes” (the French word), that is, in rest breaks for smoking! 

And this is why the words for recreational smoking in Chinook Jargon all come from Canadian French. 

Pause for a moment with me, and reflect that there aren’t any traditionally recognized words for things like ‘cigarettes’ in the Jargon. If you smoked, during the times when métis people were such a big influence, you smoked a pipe.

(And you customarily carried your tobacco and pipe in your lachúk, ‘toque’!)

In both French and English, the ‘cigarette’ is a later fashion. That’s why it’s not until 1894 that we can show the use of sigarit in Chinuk Wawa — it’s the elegant-looking first word in the following diatribe against bad priorities: 


— from Kamloops Wawa #118[b], July 1894, 2nd page of front wrapper

Bonus fact:

I want to leave you with the quite revealing Chinuk Wawa term for ‘to smoke tobacco’.

To express that idea, as far back as Fort Vancouver days (1841), Horatio Hale noticed that people said mə́kʰmək k’áynuɬ ‘to ingest tobacco’. (The verb mə́kʰmək has a default meaning of ‘eat’, but it covers all kinds of stuff you take in by mouth, so it’s also ‘drink’ and ‘smoke’. These semantics are not uncommon around the world. For a fun/nerdy party trick, ask friends who speak other languages if their people ‘eat’ or ‘drink’ soup or tobacco.)

This expression is probably quite old in CW, probably being used from the times of earliest contact with Euro-Americans. Both words in it are Indigenous. It refers to the practice we’re told of in the K’alapuyan text above (and many other sources), in which people swallowed copious amounts of tobacco smoke, ideally until they became faint.


Words for smoking in the area’s Indigenous languages match this description. In Southwest Washington Salish languages, if you’re a tobacco user you ‘drink smoke’. (You don’t ‘eat’ it.) In Upper Chehalis, this expression qʷóʔ-sq’ʷux̣ʷ is noted as an ‘archaic form’, in fact.

Also, although having a very different grammar from Salish, a Shoalwater-Clatsop traditional story has a character ‘eating’ or ‘swallowing’ smoke, and being addressed by a word that storyteller Charles Cultee explained to anthropologist Franz Boas in Chinook Jargon as ‘smoke eater’. (Apparently something like mayka mə́kʰmək smúk ‘you who eat smoke’, going by the context.)

There’s also an anecdote of Nez Perces talking about how “white men eat smoke” in Samuel Parker’s 1844 memoir.

So we’re looking at another Indigenous metaphor in Chinuk Wawa.

Probably related to all this is the recurring metaphor among SW WA Salish languages for being ‘drunk’, expressed as ‘spinning eyes’, i.e. dizzy. This would seem to be another old idiom from pre-contact, thus tobacco-using, days. (But it didn’t come into Chinuk Wawa, as far as we know.)

What do you think? qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?