1868: A newfound quote + 3 Indigenous speakers of BC Métis French

I’ve written a number of times about the Métis French that was BC’s lingua franca until Chinook Jargon — another Métis language — took over…

(By lingua franca, I mean a language that enabled diverse ethno-linguistic groups to communicate with each other. BC Métis French was spoken between Métis people, Indigenous tribal people of the province, the mostly Scottish fur trade management class, and missionary priests from Europe.

Among the BC Indigenous people who were the majority of its speakers, this “country French” was noticeably pidginized, as you’ll see below.)

may-tea

“May Tea?” Painting by David Garneau, from the series Cowboys and Indians (and Métis?) (image credit: âpihtawikosisân: law. language.culture)

So it’s really pleasing to be able to show you some new discoveries of that “français du pays” (‘country French’) / “French of the Mountains”.

These turned up as I read the longtime journal of the main Catholic missionary organization in the province’s frontier times, “Missions de la Congrégation des Oblats de Marie Immaculée“, #33 (March 1870).

In that publication, missionary priests habitually described their colorful experiences for each other’s benefit, and surely to encourage financial donations by good Catholics in France.

Three passages are of great interest for us.

These are in the “Lettre de Monseigneur d’Herbomez au T.R.P. Supérieur Général” (“Letter from Monsignor d’Herbomez to the Very Reverend Father Superior-General”), pages 87-108. It’s dated November 28, 1868; the writer is Bishop Louis-Joseph d’Herbomez, 1822-1890.

On page 91, leaving Quesnel for “Alka Lake” (Ulkatcho Dakelh (Carrier) country), the “fair amount of French” spoken by a young Dakelh man from (Fort) Alexandria is certainly this Métis French, learned in interactions with folks like the “Canadian [i.e. Francophone] half-breed” Charles:

Charles, métis canadien, doué d’un bon caractère, s’était offert pour nous accompagner. Enfin Sam, jeune sauvage du fort Alexandre, bel homme de 6 pieds, intelligent et plein de bonne volonté. Ce jeune homme devait nous servir d’interprète: ayant été longtemps en rapport avec les blancs, il parlait passablement l’anglais et le français, outre les différents dialectes sauvages et le jargon chinouk.

‘Charles, a Canadian half-breed, gifted with a good character, offered to accompany us. [And] lastly Sam, a young Native from Fort Alexandria, a handsome man of 6 feet, intelligent and full of good will. This young man was to act as our interpreter: having been in contact with the whites for a long time, he spoke a fair amount of English and French, in addition to the various Native dialects and Chinook jargon.’

We find a quotation of a Stony Creek (Saik’uz Dakelh) Indigenous chief speaking this “country French” on page 93. In my research into the early trade languages of the Pacific Northwest, I find it’s extremely often the chiefs, and other folks who were highly respected within their tribes, that handled most dealings with outsiders, which maybe helps explain why interpreter Sam, who could understand the chief perfectly, stood back and let the two important men talk:

stony creek

Ces pauvres gens savaient cependant quelques mots de prières et de cantiques qu’ils avaient appris, tant bien que mal, des sauvages qui avaient vu les premiers Missionnaires. [Demers & Nobili, as the letter goes on to mention.] J’étais touché de leurs bonnes dispositions, et je puis dire qu’ils m’ont laissé une impression très-favorable, malgré tout ce que put dire leur chef, qui savait quelques mots de français. Cet homme, qui m’a semblé n’avoir d’autre mérite que celui d’être gros et gras, mais qui avait une haute opinion de lui-même, me disait: “Oh! chef, les sauvages bêtes! bêtes comme les chiens.” Il aurait eu probablement raison s’il n’avait [sic] parlé de lui-même; mais ses gens ne m’ont pas paru mériter cette note, et je regrette seulement de n’avoir pu leur parler comme j’aurais voulu, faute d’un habile interprète. Sam, mon guide, quoiqu’intelligent, ne pût pas me rendre grand service dans cette occasion; il n’était pas encore formé; il semblait retenu par la timidité. Certaines images, représentant les principaux mystères de notre sainte religion, me furent de la plus grande utilité. L’image de Jésus en crois, celles qui représentent l’enfer, où les méchants sont punis, et le ciel, où les bons sont récompensés…

‘These poor people, however, knew a few words of prayer and hymns that they had learned, for better or worse, from the Natives who had seen the first Missionaries. I was touched by their good disposition, and I can say that they left a very favorable impression on me, in spite of all that their chief, who knew a few words of French, could say. This man, who seemed to me to have no other merit than being big and fat, but who had a high opinion of himself, said to me, “Oh, chief, the Natives are wild animals! They’re animals(,) they’re like dogs.” He probably would have been right if he hadn’t [sic] been talking about himself; but his people did not seem to me to deserve this note, and I only regret not being able to speak to them as I would have liked, for want of a skilful interpreter. Sam, my guide, although intelligent, could not do me much service on this occasion; he was not yet trained; he seemed held back by shyness. Certain images, representing the principal mysteries of our holy religion, were of the greatest use to me. The image of Jesus is believed, those which represent hell, where the wicked are punished, and heaven, where the good are rewarded …’

The above quotation is what I’d describe as pidginized. A mother-tongue speaker of Métis French would not leave out the “be”-verb in the context of saying someone “is” some noun or other. (Equative copular statements.) For example in St Laurent “Michif French”, ‘Paul is the tallest man…’ is < Paul y li l’plu gran t’om… > I understand the chief’s words as “Oh! chef, les sauvages Ø bêtes! Ø bêtes(, Ø) comme les chiens,” where my Ø reflects the absence of any “be”-verb. 

Page 102 takes a moment to explain the (Métis) French tribal names Babines (a Canadianism for ‘lippy; thick-lipped; etc.’) and Porteurs (‘Carriers’).

At the Dakelh community of Stuart Lake, pages 104-105, we find a teenage Indigenous speaker of French of the Mountains:


Au moment de notre dèpart, le chef nous confia un de ses fils, jeune homme de quatorze ans, plein d’intelligence et connaissant le français du pays. Il nous sera très-utile comme interprète, et avec son aide nou pourrons traduire d’une manière plus correcte nos prières et nos cantiques à l’usage des Porteurs. Notre fidèle Sam et un métis formaient tout notre équipage. Grâce à un courant très-rapide, nous pûmes arriver dès le 1er juillet au fort Georges, d’où nous partîmes le lendemain en compagnie de tous les sauvages qui s’y trouvaient, pour nous rendre à 40 milles plus loin, à un endroit où devait avoir lieu une grande réunion.

‘At the time of our departure, the chief entrusted us with one of his sons, a young man of fourteen, full of intelligence and knowing the French of the country. He will be very useful to us as an interpreter, and with his help we will be able to translate in a more correct way our prayers and our hymns for the use of the Carriers. Our loyal Sam and a half-breed made up [completed] our entire crew. Thanks to a very rapid current, we were able to arrive on July 1 at Fort George [modern Prince George], whence we set out the next day in company with all the Indians who were there, to reach a place 40 miles farther on, where a big gathering was to take place.’

What do you think?
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