SLEMETÁS in SENĆOŦEN, and Métis at Fort Victoria

Evidence of Métis influence in the coastal area of Victoria, BC.


Mitasses, a typically Métis item of apparel (image credit: Dawson Trail Treasures)

The fantastically good SENĆOŦEN dictionary by Timothy Montler includes an entry that’s phonemically slə́mətes ‘leggings, rags wound around the legs’.

The word is noted as “analysis uncertain”.

But we know the noun mítás ‘leggings’ in Chinuk Wawa, as far back as George Gibbs’ 1863 dictionary based on his 1850s experiences.

This is a Cree- (and/or other Algonquian language-)origin word, commonly used in North American French, including in Louisiana.

Within North American French, la mitasse / les mitasses has also gained a sense of ‘glove(s); mitten(s)’. I see this noted in both the Dictionary of Louisiana French and by Father Le Jeune for Kamloops Chinook Jargon, the latter directly showing Métis influence in British Columbia. 

I imagine that’s under the influence of the English-origin mitaine ‘mitten’. The usually valuable Wiktionary assigns an etymology for this in an Old French word for ‘cat’! Unlikely, at least for us in North America. Mitaine is glossed as ‘fingerless glove’ generally, but for Canada in particular, ‘mitten’, showing the sort of English influence we expect on this continent. 

‘Leggings’ are quite an old-fashioned item of clothing. That is, what’s now sold as ‘leggings’ are a recent innovation in female apparel and are a kind of pants, rather than the leg wraps described above.

So we don’t find mitas in any of the 3 excellent dictionaries of Michif, the Cree-French language of the Métis Red River people. All were compiled in the 1980s and after.

Nonetheless, the SENĆOŦEN word slə́mətes indicates, when you remove the Salish noun-marking prefix s-, not a Chinook Jargon source but instead the presence on Vancouver Island, BC, of people speaking French and/or Michif.

The tipoff is the trace of the French definite article la (here [lə́]). Chinuk Wawa speakers have no track record of adding la / le / les onto CW words — except the demographic slice of Métis CW speakers who also knew French and/or Michif! That subset of people are the simplest & best explanation of why we also find Jargon words like lishát (‘le shirt’) and lákámás (‘le camas’).

I venture further to draw your thoughts to the close parallel in form between the SENĆOŦEN word /mətes/ and the Plains Cree (therefore also the expected Michif) pronunciation [mιtá:s] of mitâs ‘pants’. The schwa in the SENĆOŦEN form is the typical correlate of unstressed short vowels in words borrowed from foreign languages, and the [e] is the usual SENĆOŦEN development from /a/ in both native & loaned words. Numerous older borrowed words in the SENĆOŦEN language show these changes, e.g. /lətém/ ‘table’ from CW latám.

I refer to an ‘older’ linguistic-archaeological stratum because the more recent borrowings of words containing /a/ in SENĆOŦEN preserve that sound unchanged. Examples include /mál/ ‘mall’ and the interesting case of /táktə/ ‘doctor’, which almost certainly came in via Chinook Jargon but then resisted the /a/ => /e/ shift due to ongoing close contact with local English use of the word as Settler population density increased.

[Editing to add: also indicative of an older borrowing is the nativization of la mitasse/les mitasses into Salish form by the addition of the noun-marking s- prefix. Newer loans into Salish languages typically lack that prefix.] 

All of these facts indicate the presence of Métis French and/or Michif speakers in Saanich-Victoria area of southeast Vancouver Island, Canada, at an early date in Indigenous contact with Euro-Americans.

Not too early, because the first phase of that era involved essentially just seafaring English speakers. From 1843, though, there was the new presence of Fort Victoria, an extension of the Hudson Bay Company’s overland fur trade, with its numerous “French” (really Métis and other francophone Canadian) employees.

Thus we can more or less pinpoint the vintage of SENĆOŦEN slə́mətes to, say, between 1843 and the 1864 closing of Fort Victoria. At that latter time, the Métis workforce would’ve been economically compelled to disperse among the Settler population, and would then have been far less a socially influential group in terms of contacts with Indigenous people.

[Editing to add: BONUS FACT]

I find no words for ‘leggings’ in modern Michif dictionaries. Because I know that mitâs has come to mean ‘pants’ in modern Plains Cree, I sought out Michif words for ‘pants’, hoping to find this same form. But all 3 modern Michif dictionaries indicate that ‘pants’ are (lii) kilot, tracing back to French culottes. The humorist David Sedaris would love Michif!

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