“Naika tilicum” and Native ways of talking about your relatives

One page after declaring the fur trade extinct on the coast, Geo. Gibbs (1877) tries to explain why nayka tilixam is such a common expression among Native people, and by extension among all Chinuk Wawa speakers.


(Image credit: lewis-clark.org)

His comments here are as well informed by personal experience of Indigenous people as usual, although the following also strikes me as more culturally blinkered than most of his observations:

Domestic affection cannot be considered strong among these races. The ties between parent and child, husband and wife, seem little closer than between more distant relatives, or even others of the same tribe. Indeed, the term “naika tilicum”, my relation, or one of my people, is more often in their mouths than any denoting nearer kin. Mothers, it is true, show certain degree of affection toward their children; but even this is subject to exceptions, or rather is itself an exception, as might be expected in such a general state of profligacy… Grandparents seem to have a greater attachment to their descendants than do the immediate progenitors. 

— from page 198 of Gibbs’s 1877 “Tribes of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon

A couple of points ought to be distinguished from each other here…

First, Gibbs seems to be telling us about how people were speaking Chinuk Wawa. (Which was due to his presence among them!) He’s not telling us much, if anything, about their use of their tribal languages, which he couldn’t really speak.

The dictionaries and reference data on those languages amply show us that they contain far more numerous and specialized kinship terms than English possesses, and in many of the tribal languages there are, in addition, separate, specialized terms for directly speaking to this or that family member. Chinuk Wawa, on the other hand, never developed terribly detailed kinship terms, and in fact it lost several that its earliest stages had had, like ‘brother-in-law’ and ‘older brother’. (Which were from Indigenous languages!)

Second, Gibbs is the captive of Euro-American preconceived expectations about family life. He mistakes the traditionally enormous importance of the extended family in the tribal cultures — where everyone shares responsibilities to a greater degree than in frontier White folks’ nuclear families — for a lack of caring about one another. Ouch.

Conversely, he misinterprets tribal grandparents’ traditionally crucial role in child-rearing, which relieves parents of some of the burdens involved with it, as proof that the parents don’t care very much about their daughters and sons. Ouch.

In my view, the useful takeaway from the quotation of Gibbs 1877 above is that the reason for nayka tilixam being such a frequent expression in Jargon for ‘my relative’ and ‘my friend’ is, simply, that the Jargon has very few other available terms for such relationships.

I’m not sure why the early, southern-dialect Jargon word shiks ‘friend’ became less well known in the later, northern dialect, where tilixam became more usual. But the fact is, through time tilixam did indeed become more and more frequent as a generic term in Chinuk Wawa for anyone you feel a personal relationship with.

Bonus fact:

We can also look at the etymology of tilixam for possible insights. The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary, not inaccurately, points to this word coming from a pan-Chinookan word for ‘people’, basically tə́[-]lxam, a stem that’s formed from a plural prefix t- and a root -lx for ‘land’.

(The apparently suffixal -am there isn’t yet explained, as Franz Boas pointed out.)

2012 GR also directs our attention to the very similar Lower Chinookan í-lx[-]am ‘town’, as well as to the related Chinookan and Chinook Jargon ilihi ‘land, place’. It seems to me I’ve also read that the place and ethnic names “Nehalem” and “Tillamook” on the Oregon coast are thought to derive from Lower Chinookan ílxam ‘town’.

I want to contribute to the analysis of the Jargon’s tilixam by pointing out that Chinookan tə́[-]lxam is apparently ‘towns’, the plural of i-lxam.

That stem for ‘towns’ usually shows up in Clatsop-Shoalwater Lower Chinookan in a pronunciation like [tä́lxam / tέlxam]. I suspect this shows it being additionally inflected by an “affective” / “expressive” mutation from /ə́/ to /í/, if it’s anything like the one in neighboring Lower Chehalis Salish. (LCS is unrelated, but it was traditionally spoken by Lower Chinookans with the Salish people who shared towns with them.) Thus the word that came to be ‘people’ in Chinookan was originally, perhaps, ‘dear towns (of our people)’. 

A traditional village was in fact a group of your kinfolks. A tribe, in the densely populated environment of the pre-contact lower Columbia River, might be felt to be several villages situated close to one another.

I also have in mind that the Lower Chehalis Salish language expresses ‘people’ by a word that appears to literally mean ~’they are many in a (traditional big) house’. This is apparently the term for a ‘tribe’, as it’s used for example in the expression for the ‘Chinook people’.

And an early Chinuk Wawa term for a ‘town/village’ was literally ‘many houses’, hayu haws

The general idea that takes shape for my mind is that traditionally on the lower Columbia River, a tribal group of people was conceived of with the Native metaphor HOME LOCATION :: KIN GROUP.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?