1887 [1858]: “Reminiscences” of BC Métis, Chinese, + Jargon

I’ve snipped several fascinating sections of a Fraser River gold rusher’s personal narrative.

The writer, whoever he was, was almost certainly born in the States.


Oak Bay Chinese Cemetery, Victoria, BC (image credit: Harropian Books)

Among his valuable first-person observations: Red River Métis at Fort Victoria, and early Chinook Jargon in mainland BC.

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I’m not reproducing this whole article, but it’s a whole lot of excellent reading if you can access it via Newspapers.com.

Here’s the author’s identification of Red River people as having been present in early Victoria:

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Nearly forty years ago, (in 1848), the employees of the Hudson Bay Company, under the auspices of James Douglas, Roderick Finlayson, Charles Lewis and A. Lee Lewis, settled in Victoria, V.I., B.C. They were subsequently joined by the French Canadian voyageurs from Hudson Bay and the Red River settlements.

Then what the writer remembers as a prank by Native people on Chinese immigrants, although I’m thinking it may have been a case of just not letting excellent food go to waste:

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Even the Siwashes perpetrated a grave joke upon the Celestials, when the latter had their first funeral feast for the dead, and innocently left the roast porker — (salmon fed) — at the grave. Needless to add that the King George‘s got away with the Boston Siwashes, as they termed the Chinamen.

Of course Siwash is the word for a ‘Native person’. King George is a ‘Canadian’ because it originally meant ‘British’. Boston Siwash might’ve been translated as ‘U.S. Indians’ in the common terms of the time, efficiently signifying non-BC, non-White people. This is not exactly surprising but still mildly remarkable to me, as so many Indigenous languages have referred to e.g. African-Americans as ‘Black White people’. It makes me reflect that ethnic designations often take into account people’s typical speech patterns; Native folks may have quickly come to recognize differences between British & US English accents, and lumped White and Black Americans together on that basis. Chinese people’s speech perhaps sounded more similar to Indigenous speech, in this perspective! Now, having put this idea forth, I should also comment that the earliest Chinese immigrants in BC probably arrived from the USA, not directly from the old country.

Next, the writer recalls a term for a ‘potlatch’, passie mamook (‘blanket doings’), that we haven’t encountered before — but it tends to support my long-held view that the verb potlatch was not a noun for ‘a potlatch’ within Chinuk Wawa:

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At certain times the Indians would have a grand passie mamook, or blanket potlatch.

Let it be noted that this passie stands a good chance of being a typesetter’s misreading of something like pasisie, that is pásisi ‘blanket’.

Lastly, a “fish story” — do my foreign readers know that this is the English term for a “tall tale”? Are you familiar with the US folk genre of tall tales? Read this, my friend, and it’ll be obvious what we mean:

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Nika kumtux klup hiyiu tzum salmon — “I know where you can catch plenty of trout.” He was engaged at once, and taking canoe started up creek and commenced fishing, but meeting with indifferent success until the Siwash baited the hooks for him with salmon roe. This he did by fastening the roe with hair pulled from his own head and dexterously twisted on the hooks. The fish at once bit voraciously, and in a few hours an immense number of the tsum (spotted) trout had been landed. Suddenly the Indian stopped baiting the hooks. “Hyack! hyack!” cried the now excited fisherman. “Holo tipso la-tete” was the gutteral response; but not understanding the meaning of “Helo tipso la-tete” he impatiently turned to look at the Indian behind him. He was bald! “Helo tipso” meant — “no more hair on the head” (with which to fasten the bait on). The baldheaded Siwash still lives at Yale, but needless to add his hair has since grown out again. 

Nika kumtux klup hiyiu tzum salmon = nayka kə́mtəks t’ɬáp háyú t’sə́m-sámən = ‘I know how to catch lots of spotted-fish.’ This phrase tzum salmon traces back to George Gibbs’s influential 1863 dictionary, and even though few other sources have it, I believe it was widely used — giving rise also to the Pacific Northwest English term ‘chum salmon’. For several decades in the early Settler history of the region, names for the various salmon “runs” (subspecies) varied greatly. Hyack! = áyáq! = ‘hurry!’ Holo (or helotipso la-tete = hílu-típsu-latét = ‘no-hair-head’, and I want you to know that this might be the first Jargon expression for ‘bald’ that we’ve found. True baldness was rare in old times; one pioneer commented on “the only bald-headed Indian I ever saw“.

— all of the above from the Victoria (BC) Daily Times of December 31, 1887, page 5, columns 1-4

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
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