The “Slavey Jargon”/rubbaboo as a trace of Métis in the far Northwest

Hayu masi / maarsii to Dr. Keren Rice, my linguist colleague who kindly shared a copy of Craig Mishler’s 2008 article with me.I’m discussing ” ‘That’s a Rubbaboo’: Slavey Jargon in a nineteenth century Subarctic speech community”, published in the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 23(2):264-287.

Let me first talk about what a “rubbaboo” is. A website that any fan of languages in Canada should bookmark, the venerable Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, has an ample entry spelled rub(b)aboo that’s a source of delight to me:

1 n[oun].

See 1964 quote [below].

See also: burgoo[,]  richeau[,]  ruhiggan burgoo  

The precise origin of this widely used term of earlier days is obscure; it may have been influenced by burgoo, used by the English traders in much the same sense.

  • 1821  (1900)  Our Men are now eating Rababoo made of Pemican and Flour.
  • 1863  There . . . is scarcely enough firewood to cook the snipe you shoot, or to make the “rubaboo” kettle boil. . . .
  • 1909  There was this year plenty of buffalo meat and the Scotch women soon learned to cook it into “Rubaboo,” or “Rowschow,” after the manner of the French half-breeds.
  • 1930  How he had relished that first meal at home, consisting chiefly of rubaboo and bannock buttered with buffalo marrow fat.
  • 1964  There was the soup or stew called rubbaboo in which a lump of pemmican was chopped off and put in a pot of boiling water. If it was available, flour was added and possibly wild onions, sometimes a little sugar, occasionally a vegetable and a scrap of salt pork.

2 n. — Fig[urative].

a miscellany; a mixed bag.

  • 1862  (1966)  I must tell now why I call these writings a Rubbaboo Journal. Any queer mixture gets that name among the voyageurs. When I try to speak French and mix English, Slavy and Louchioux words with it, they tell me “that’s a rubbaboo.” And when the Indians attempt to sing a voyaging song, the different keys and tunes make a “rubbaboo.”
  • 1963  Another follow-up is Rubaboo 2 (Gage) an anthology of Canadian stories and poems.

Like so much writing about Métis people, this dictionary entry fails to discuss them very clearly!

Rubbaboo is a Métis word. I feel almost certain it’s a Red River word, in its specific origin; it shows up in one of the (Heritage/Southern) Michif dictionaries. Various sources will tell you, with varying degrees of speculation and clarity, that it may be connected with French roux, ragout, or ratatouille, and/or an Algonquian-language word such as Anishnaabe (“Ojibwe”) naboo(b) ‘soup’ and Saulteaux waabaabo ‘white broth’.

It’s possible none of these is irrelevant to story of “rubaboo”. And this cultural blend of Algonquian cultures such as Cree and Ojibwe, with French Canadian, strongly suggests the Red River Métis communities as a source. The above citations in fact relate to Métis (“half-breeds”). The synonyms, such as “rowschow”/richeau (rechaud), have the same connection.

If you’d rather eat it than read about it, here’s a traditional Turtle Mountain rubaboo recipe.

mishler map

Map of approximate Slavey Jargon speech region, from Mishler 2008 

Now, let’s move on to this neat little study by ethnographer Craig Mishler, who has also done masterful research into Northern Athabaskan fiddling — another avenue of Métis influence in the North. I’m going to engage with various points that Mishler makes.

A cool lead-in for us is that the 1862 citation above of the earliest metaphorical use of of rubbaboo comes from a pidgin language of the far Northwest. That’s the “Slavey Jargon” or “Broken Slavey” or “Loucheux Jargon” of a belt of Métis-inhabited and -influenced historical fur trade areas from east-central Alaska, through the nearby Yukon Territory, into the adjoining part of the Northwest Territories.

That 1862 writer was Robert Kennicott, a visiting naturalist. You may have heard of the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska, named for him. His reference to a combination of elements from French, English, NWT Slavey Dene, and NWT/Yukon/Alaskan Gwich’in Dene is in itself a clear enough diagnostic of northern Métis presence and of recent, intense cultural contact.

An important sidebar: “Slavey” is a Métis French translation of the Cree exonym ᐊᐊᐧᐦᑳᐣ awahkân for ‘(en)slave(d)’. Because its story involves both Cree and French, this may be an old Michif term as well. “Loucheux” is a similarly uncomplimentary-sounding Métis word, calling Dene people ‘squinters’. 

Craig Mishler, examining Kennicott’s writings, puts them in a context that documents the Métis population and the numerous cultures involved in the fur-trade dynamics of the region. He additionally notes an element of another non-Arctic language, Cree, in Slavey Jargon, and I’d say this is another indicator of a Métis role in the situation, as the NWT/YT/Alaska aren’t traditional Cree territory.

I want to add, in a move that I seem to often make, that there’s no principled reason to rule out the presence of the Southern/Heritage Michif language (mixed Plains Cree-French) in the Slavey Jargon mix. The dates agree with the known existence of Michif — and until the later 20th century, basically no observers ever noted Michif as a Métis language in its own right. What folks instead tended to do was to describe Red River Métis speech as some unusual kind of either French or Cree. In fact Mishler makes clear that there were Red River folks working in AK/YT/NWT and talking Slavey Jargon. Compellingly, a biographer of fur-trade employee Antoine Hoole’s stepsister Marie Gaudet, in a quotation by Mishler, notes that she was fluent in “French (probably Michif French)”! (Page 272. I want to note a synonym in 2022 Canadian English, “bush French”, that I’ve learned from my colleague Dale McCreery.) Mishler, who quotes a couple of authorities that “country [i.e. Métis] French” was the common language at these fur posts (p. 276), elsewhere shows awareness of Michif’s existence, but like all of us, he seems to associate it more with the historic Red River settlement region than with the vast areas where Red River people went in their work duties.

Mishler adds still another non-local Indigenous language, Chipewyan Dene (native to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and NWT) to the mix of languages comprising the Slavey Jargon of the Yukon area.

Mishler says (p. 271) that interpreter Antoine Hoole, who originally knew no English, was born in 1827 in the vicinity of Fort Halkett on the Liard (‘cottonwood’ in Canadian French) River, in the border area of modern BC and Yukon Territory. Hoole’s dad was a “French-Canadian…fluent in Cree…from the Swan River district of [modern] Saskatchewan”, and his mom was a Métis(se) who may have taught Slavey to missionaries. Mishler erroneously infers that Hoole spoke Slavey due to its being the First Nations language of his birthplace, but that would in fact be Kaska or Sekani. The latter of these Hoole indeed was reported to speak, in addition to his use of the Slavey that so many fur-trade people used and which was itself a language of some Métis communities. On page 272 Mishler goes on to interpret visiting naturalist William Dall’s report that “broken Slavé” is based on “the dialect of Liard River” as implicating South Slavey; but my understanding is that South Slavey is a BC First Nations language only farther to the east, i.e. around Fort Nelson. The Liard River is entirely Kaska Dena territory.

I think the big takeaway here is that “Slavey” may have historically been the term used by non-locals for all Dene speech in the northern fur trade areas. Perhaps it’s similar to how Settlers often called all Oregon/Washington/BC tribes “Chinooks” and/or “Siwashes” indiscriminately. 

I do wonder why Hoole would’ve been translating a missionary’s religious service at Fort Yukon from English into “broken Slavé” as Dall has it. Fort Yukon is Gwich’in territory. Hoole was sent as a young teen by the HBC to learn Gwich’in. He was apparently married to two Gwich’in women simultaneously. Was the gathering at Fort Yukon one that involved a significant number of non-Gwich’ins, maybe Métis who didn’t know English well? Would the cheechako Dall have even been capable of distinguishing “broken Slavé” from Gwich’in? Was Dall erroneously trying to show off some local knowledge, having been told of the very real widespread use of Slavey Jargon among fur traders and local Natives?

Mishler on page 272 talks about “Perro LeNoire (also known as ‘the Negro’)”, originally from the South Slavey community of Fort Simpson, NWT. He worked at Fort Yukon 1847-1853. Various recent writers have claimed LeNoire as an African-Canadian, but I’ve seen no evidence to back that up. This is just a guy with a Métis French name, ‘The Dark(-Complected) One’, as we see with Alexis Lafferty dit Le Noir. Lots of folks had MFr names; virtually none were what we’d now call Black people.

I like how Mishler ventures on page 277 that Slavey Jargon functioned as a way for Native wives and fur-trade husbands to communicate together, as well as for “trade” purposes. He reasonably directs our attention to the fact that most of the few known sentences in SJ show acquaintances joking with each other, etc.

Mishler quotes Richard Slobodin on page 278, crediting Red River Métis people with the crucial role in developing “Broken Slavey”. The only quibble that Mishler can find with that is that there’s no documentation of Slavey Jargon having been used at Red River — but to me, that’s misguided. We might as well try to find evidence of another far-flung Métis language, Chinook Jargon, being spoken over there in Manitoba. There was absolutely no reason for folks to use these location-specific Far West lingos back home at Lord Selkirk’s colony.

A really wonderful strand in Mishler’s article is his attempt to pinpoint specific individuals by name, as the inventors of Slavey Jargon. I think he’s onto something there, in that we absolutely must recognize the important roles of real people, with their uniquely complicated lives, in building new small speech communities. We can’t have confidence that Mishler has found exactly the handful of creators of SJ, but as with e.g. Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands English, we can get very close and we can learn a lot from the exercise.

Something else excellent in Mishler’s paper is his displaying from pages 279 onwards all of the known Slavey Jargon texts. This is a small number of sentences, some never previously provided with translations, and he leaves open the question of what they actually mean. Here’s a lovely opportunity for a Northern Dene (and Michif French) speaker to chip in! 

Here my main purpose has been to draw attention to the existence of yet another Métis form of speech in the far West/North. My research as shown to you lately on this website is all about systematically collecting the known linguistic traces of the Métis people in our region, for the first time.

This builds up our proof that Métis “country/bush/Michif” French was the first pan-ethnic lingua franca out here. There are always shadowy hints that Michif may have been on the scene, too.

We’re also establishing really strong parallels between Métis ways of talking, and culture, across the vast territory of the fur-trade frontier from the Arctic Circle to Fort Vancouver from roughly 1800 to roughly 1860. The same words, and the same types of words, of Métis French keep showing up everywhere from northern Dene languages to Chinook Jargon. A fun example is informal MFr words of exasperation: Slavey Jargon took in “sagriy la mard” ‘holy shit!’ (in frustration; page 283 of Mishler),* and Chinuk Wawa had “tapahote” ‘(you have no) shame! / shame on you!’ (John Ball ms. 195 quoted in Geo. Lang’s book “Making Wawa”).

*Editing to point out: this is not necessarily an expression within MFr, where “sacré(e)(,) la merde”, whether you take it as 2 cusses or 1, wouldn’t have the Definite Article “la”. So “sagriy la mard” appears to be an expression coined in Slavey Jargon, and likely under informal English influence. (We say ‘holy shit’ all the time where I live in the Pacific NW.)

I’ll write up a separate little report for you on someone’s article that made a great start on examining subarctic Métis speech, including the “Loucheux Jargon”.

Bonus fact:

Hardly anyone knows this, but another Yukon Territory “contact language” of the 1800’s was the Herschel Island pidgin version of Inuvialuktun / “pidgin Eskimo”, primarily used with whaling ship crews.

You might be astonished to learn that those crews, like the Hudson Bay Company staff in the PNW, included Native Hawai’ians — and the Herschel Island Jargon used quite a number of Hawai’ian-language words!

You can read Vilhjálmur Stefánsson’s 1909 article about that Jargon at the link.

Another connection made by Stefánsson that might expand your mind is that there were Cape Verdeans among those Arctic whaling crews. Yes indeed, Portuguese Creole speakers from some islands off the coast of Africa. Cape Verde, as well as the Portuguese-controlled islands of the Azores and Madeira, were routine stop-offs for supplies and labor recruitment in 1800s trading and whaling days. Folks from those Atlantic archipelagos were the majority of the well-known “Portuguese” population of Hawai’i, a group that’s famous for introducing the ukulele there!

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?