Explicit Métis influence on Secwépemc culture + language

These local tribal people had long acquaintance with the fur trade, and they were consistent in identifying Métis influence.

ojibwe cards

Ojibwe birchbark playing cards, circa 1875 (image credit: World of Playing Cards)

James A. Teit’s 1909 ethnography of southern interior British Columbia’s Secwépemc Salish people, “The Shuswap“, turns up European- and Métis (“half-breed”)-sourced material of various kinds. (That’s a live link to go read the book for free. Click it!)

There are stories whose protagonists have names that appear to be borrowed:

  • Alamēʹr (p. 729 ff), whose teller was “a man of sixty or more” who heard it when he was a boy, and it was said to “have been current even before his time”. He believed it came from some of the first “Hudson Bay Company’s half-breeds, who lived in the country”, and Teit sees it as clearly having a European origin. I would guess a French etymology “à la mer” (‘to the sea’) for this character’s name.
  • ButcEtsāʹ (p. 733 ff), which is French-Canadian Petit-Jean (compare pchiza at Grand Ronde, Oregon).

There’s also the ethnic label Nē’gel (p. 452) for ‘Negro’. Teit says this is “from French”, i.e. nègre(s).

A point of related interest on that page is the synonym Kenkanahô’, for people of African lineage, “said to be a word introduced by half-breeds of the fur companies” — is this an Iroquois or Cree word, perhaps?

Also on p. 452, “the first whites seen, the employees of the Northwest and Hudson Bay companies”, which must include Métis, are denoted by the native Secwépemc terms that mean literally ‘real ancients’ / ‘real mythological beings’ and ‘(people from) the country on the other side’ of the Rocky Mountains.

The “Iroquois band at Yellow Head Pass”, long considered a “halfbreed” community, is known to the Secwépemc people by several names:

  • Ē’ramo (“probably a corruption of [the word] Iroquois”, compare the Kamloops-area personal name Ingas Lirokwa/Ignace L’Iroquois, Kamloops Wawa #118b, and Upper Chehalis Salish yílikʷu),
  • Le’matcif / Le’matcip (“half-breed;” from the French métis, pronounced by the French often “metci’f”),
  • and Tenesi’na (what’s the origin of this word?).

Such members of that community as Teit has met speak Secwepemc, Cree, and “Canadian French” (pages 454-455). Given its presence alongside another language not ancient in BC (Cree), the latter is with a virtual certainty the “French of the Mountains”, Michif French/Métis French that I’ve documented quite a bit in the province. Nobody but the Iroquois themselves in BC understood Iroquois (page 468).

We learn on pages 495-496 that the Secwépemc were shifting away from their traditional underground houses (kíkwəli-hàws) “long prior to 1858” (i.e. the start of serious colonial Settlement), copying the Hudsons Bay Company’s building style. This occurred well before neighbouring tribes like the Thompson Salish began such a change of habitation.

Page 564 relays elders’ reports that card games were introduced around the year 1800 by “the French half-breeds in the employ of the fur companies”, with French names for the cards. Secwepemc and Thompson Salish people at first made birch-bark cards. In a microcosm of how Chinuk Wawa, too, developed in this region, “when paper cards came into use, English names [for them] were introduced”.

Page 571: many of the baptismal names of Secwépemc people are French, but I’ll specify that most of these are from recent European francophone priests, not due to Métis influence.

Page 621 notes that the fur-trade “half-breeds” spent protracted spans of time among the Secwépemc, and were “very fond of listening to and telling stories”. Teit believes the Métis introduced a number of now traditionally told stories into these tribes. Here Teit also reports (621-622) that many years before “the first white miners” or indeed any significant Settler population arrived, a “Hudson Bay half-breed told the Shuswap” to expect black-robed men (priests) to show up, and not to listen to those “sons of Coyote”, who would make the Natives “poor, foolish, and helpless”. Some tribal people to this day wonder, says Teit, whether the cause of their social decline is the Christian religion.

Bonus language fact:

Crees, who had deep historical ties with the northern Plains, were considered particularly good sign language talkers. An anecdote is told (page 550) of a Cree insultingly making the sign of a woman’s privates, which is described on page 568, at a Secwepemc man of “Selpaʹxen’s” band.

(That’s the same name, Shilpahan, that was carried by a chief who was highly literate in Chinuk Pipa writing.)

Teit here describes several additional hand signs beyond what he previously published in his Thompson Salish ethnography.

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