Why was syphilis called Chinook in the interior PNW?
While researching the etymology of the name “Chinook”(*), I happened upon a couple of occurrences of similar-sounding words in interior Pacific Northwest languages…
Part of the solution? (Image credit: Chinook Therapeutics)
Nez Perce, in the Sahaptian language family, has cinú•k ~ cenú•k ‘have gonorrhea’.
Umatilla, its sister language, has činúki ‘have venereal disease’. The Ichishkíin (Yakama) dialect has the identical word chinúki, translated also as ‘have…sexually transmitted disease’.
I hope you’re as alarmed as I was at the idea that an illness is called ‘the Chinook’.
I’ve invested some fair time and energy into checking whether these are indigenous Sahaptian-family words — but the correspondence of Nez Perce /c/ with Umatilla-Yakama /č/ is not a regular one. That fact suggests that we are indeed looking at foreign word, “Chinook”.
Well, now I’ve found the same usage in an unrelated language, Okanagan-Colville, which is a member of a different language family, Salish. In a classic ethnographic study, “The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagon of Washington” edited by Leslie Spier, 1938, I find this information on page 165:
Syphilis was called tci´nūk [činúk(ʷ)], because it was believed to have come from the Chinook Indians. No venereal diseases were known before the whites entered the country. We obtained no native remedies for them.
I’ve seen it claimed many times in the scholarly literature that syphilis and suchlike afflictions were unknown in North America until White people showed up. I’ve also seen it claimed that syphilis came from here to Europe.
I’m not a specialist in that topic, but it probably has significance that several inland PNW languages apparently either lacked a word for STI’s, or else so strongly associated them with some new influence from the coast, that they spoke of “the Chinook sickness”.
Page 78 gives us a little more about this word:
…People around the Dalles in general [presumably Upper Chinookans and Sahaptins] are called swaī.ya’mpȧˣ [Salishanized from the Celilo Sahaptian tribe name wayámpam], and the [Lower] Chinook are stcEnūk [sčənúk(ʷ)].
So it looks to me like it was specifically the Lower Chinookans, the Natítanui, who were thought of as “Chinook” and were associated with supposedly post-contact diseases. The implication — that Lower Chinookans had especially close relations with Euro-Americans, presumably from the point of view of Washington tribes, including the Métis who predominated in the Fort Vancouver-headquartered fur trade.
Tribes as far apart on the Columbia River as the Okanogans and the Lower Chinookans wouldn’t have had much direct interaction, as far as I’m aware. Maybe they had some contact at the Celilo / Dalles annual “mart”. Anyhow, I never see signs of a Lower Chinookan name for themselves being known to far-upriver people like the Okanogans. Instead, it’s always “Chinook”…
…which my research indicates is a Lower Chehalis Salish word meaning something like ‘the other tribe’ or ‘the neighbors’.