PNW tribe names from Métis French
Here as usual I’ll refer to the mixed Cree-French language Michif for Métis French word forms.
Hm, vocabulary about Métis people…in standard French (Image credit: TeachersPayTeachers.com)
Astonishingly, Métis French remains hardly documented at all, compared with the leaps and bounds in Michif research.
I hereby suggest someone HIRE A LINGUIST (me) to conduct the field research & write the first serious grammatical description and dictionary of MFr. It’s still spoken in Manitoba, for instance.
Now, a first list of fur-trade era Métis French names of Pacific NW tribes. Have you seen other examples?
I’ll preface this with a repeat of my observation that many, many MFr words are documented only outside of the tiny scholarly literature on MFr, instead being preserved in Pacific NW languages including Chinook Jargon — and also in tribal monikers like these.
Note too that these ethnonyms have virtually always been presented in standard European French spellings, and labeled as “French” with no acknowledgement of a separate Canadian or Métis identity.
This despite their employment of highly distinctive vocabulary (like Babine) and pronunciations (like Nez Percé retaining its Métis pronunciation nipʰərsi in Chinuk Wawa).
- Arcs Plattes [sic] = Ktunaxa / Kootenay
(‘flat bows’, note Michif aen naark ‘a bow’ & the Métis French invariable adjective plat pronounced [plat] regardless of gender).
- Gens des Lacs = the “Lakes” Salish
(Michif zhawn ‘person’, di ‘of’, lak ‘lake(s)’)
- Pend d’Oreilles, formerly in English translation the Ear Bobs
(Michif pañ dareey ‘earrings’, mii pañ dareey ‘my earrings’ versus modern standard French boucles d’oreilles).
- Couteau(x) = Thompson Salish
(Michif aen kootoo ‘knife’).
- Coeur(s) d’Alène
(Michif koer/choer ‘heart’, dʹ ʹofʹ, aen naleen ʹan awlʹ).
(compare Michif shayayr ‘kettle’, standard French chaudière).
- Têtes Plat(t)es ‘Flatheads’
(Michif tet ‘head’, plat ‘flat’).
- Nez Percés
(Michif nii ‘nose’; I haven’t found a French-origin word for ‘pierce / pierced’ in Michif, but the adjectival concepts in that language do indeed come from French)
- Serpents = the “Snake Indians”
(Michif sarpawn, a synonym of koulayvr)
- Pieds Noirs ‘Blackfeet’
(Michif pyi ‘foot’, nwer ‘black’).
- Babines a.k.a. Witsuwit’en
(Michif babin ‘lip’).
- Porteurs a.k.a. “Carriers”
(no such Michif noun found by me, and we would not expect any French verbs in Michif [therefore no *porti* ‘to carry’, but Porteurs is very amply documented in old fur trade times from “French-Canadians” at least as early as 1842).
- Gens de Cuivres = the Yellowknife Dene (‘people of the copper’)
- Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwe)
are originally a tribe of the Red River area. The name refers to the “falls” of the St Mary River (Sault Ste-Marie) — thus Sauteurs, we’re told. In modern Michif the name is Sootoo.
- Peaux de Lièvres or the “Hare Indians” / Gens de Castor ‘people of the beaver'(Michif poo ‘skin’, di ‘of’, liiyev ‘rabbit’).
- Gens de(s) Foux = Gwich’in Dene, literally ‘crazy people’
- Gens des Bois = Northern Tutchone Dene ‘people of the woods’, a parallel expression to Chinook Jargon and local English ‘stick Indians’, ‘forest Indians’
- Gens de(s) Couteau(x) = Kaska Dene ‘people of the knives’
- Gens de Large = Gwich’ins of the Chandalar River (which is said to be a pronunciation of the French phrase) ? ‘people of the wide spot’ ?
- Gens de Bouleaux ‘people of the birch’ = the Upper Tanana Dene?
- Loucheux a.k.a. Gwich’in
(said to be Canadian French for ‘squinty’ or ‘cross-eyed’ or perhaps ‘quarrelers’. I haven’t found this word in Michif.)
(said to be a Canadian French translation, esclave, of a Cree exonym. The final /i/ sound in “Slavey” hasn’t been explained as far as I’m aware, but I can point out that the North Slavey Dene language adds exactly such a sound to the ends of many of its borrowed Métis French nouns. Examples include lishálí ‘shawl’, lalę́ní ‘yarn’, and lǝbílí ‘frying pan’.) Synonym — Mauvais Monde ‘bad people’.
- Gens du Lac d’Ours ‘(Great) Bear Lake People’
…plus, from the northern Great Plains:
- Gros Ventres (‘big bellies’,
Michif groo ‘big’ and li vawnt(r) ‘belly’, plus Michif groo vaantr ‘potbelly’)
- Sans Arcs
(‘without bows’, Michif saan and (n)aark ‘bow’)
(‘burnt’, a partial translation of the Lakhota tribe name Si Cangu ‘burnt thighs’; the word brûlé isn’t found in my Michif dictionaries, but again there’s no reason it couldn’t be a Michif adjective, cf. the following…)
…plus the oldtime terms for Métis people themselves, including Bois-Brûlés ‘burnt-wood’, Coureurs du Bois ‘woods-runners’, Métis ‘mixed’.
And, finally, MFr-origin for non-PNW ethnic groups, such as saganaz etc. from les anglais ‘the English’ in Dakelh, Ojibwe, and many other languages, and Chinuk Wawa pʰasayuks from ‘français’, as well as Chinuk Wawa’s (and other languages’) spa(n)yol ‘Mexican’ from espagnol.
…and then we have Sans Poil (by many spellings)…literally meaning “without hair” or possibly even “without fur” (nothing to be trapped here).
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There are indications that this French etymology for Sanpoil is a folk linguistic legend. I understand the word has a more plausible Salish origin: snpʕwílx, “gray as far as one can see” Either way, it’s an indicator of Métis presence in the area, see what I mean? Thank you Judy!
1-A correction: “Gens de(s) Foux”, as spelled here, does NOT mean “crazy people”, it means “people of the beech trees”: “Fou”, plural “foux”, is a VERY archaic French noun (The ordinary French term for “beech tree” is “Hêtre”).
The name “Gens de Bouleaux” does indicate that tree names were in use as ethnic names…
2-“Gens de Large”: If this is “Gens du Large” it would mean “People away from shore, across the water”: in this context, could it mean “The upriver (and/or) downriver people”?
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I’m grateful for your contributions to understanding these names! Merci beaucoup.
I don’t think beech trees grow in the PNW. Could this be a transference from the old referent to a different species? Or maybe the “de” is spurious, and it’s really the Crazy People? Cf. the other uncomplimentary exonyms for N Amer tribes.
I went to the “Handbook of North American Indians” Subarctic volume, to Crow and Obley’s article on the Han Gwich’in, to check on this. They say (p. 512) that these folks have been known as Gens de Fou / Gens du Fou / Gens de Foux “meaning ‘fool people’ … because of “their remarkably energetic … manner of dancing”.’
Glad to be of help.
Yes, I had indeed assumed that the “beech” was a beech-like tree of the Pacific northwest (Which one? No idea. As a Star Trek character might have put it: Dammit, Jim, I’m a linguist, not an ethnobotanist!).
The forms you quote from the Handbook (“Gens de Fou / Gens du Fou / Gens de Foux) actually strengthen my case: because “crazy people” would have to be “gens fous”, with no “de//du/des” (A quirk of French syntax: “Peuple de fous” / “Bande de fous” both work fine as “Nation of crazy people”/”Gang of crazy people”, but “gens” cannot be so used).
Because “fou” with the meaning “Beech” is almost wholly obsolete in French today (it is absent from most dictionaries), I wonder whether an original “Gens du fou”/”Gens des foux” might have been misunderstood by subsequent generations of French speakers (be they Metis or not) and mistaken for a form of the adjective “crazy”, leading to an AD HOC explanation as to why these people were called “crazy”, leading in turn to Crow and Obley’s claim you quote above.
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