Ranch Tales: the origin of the Chinook language

O'Keefe Ranch curator goes back in time

Early B.C. cowboys were allegedly masters of three languages, English, Chinook and profane.

It was no exaggeration to say that, west of the Rocky Mountains, throughout the Pacific Northwest, the common language spoken by the Native people and the early settlers was Chinook, a language that consisted of a mixture of native dialects, French and English.

Long before European contact, the native people of the northwest spoke dozens of distinct and unique languages.

In the area of present-day British Columbia, there were at least 30 languages, not including different dialects within the languages. Native people had traded for countless centuries before the explorers and fur traders arrived and it was not unusual to find sea shells and oolican grease far inland from the coastal areas where they were obtained.

Trading is always easier when buyer and seller share a common language, and so a language of trade, comprising the simplest terms of expression, evolved.

The earliest fur traders adapted and added to that common language so that the French “joual” of the Quebecers and Metis fur traders and the English of the Yorkshiremen and Orkney Islanders found their way into the mix. When the earliest missionaries, settlers and drovers arrived, they encountered a complete language that could be spoken to natives or whites anywhere in B.C.

Even though its grammar and vocabulary were limited, the new language displayed a flexibility and power of expression that met every need of normal conversation.

Most of the earliest cowboys were of native or mixed-blood origin so it was only natural that Chinook become the most commonly spoken language of the ranches in the interior.

It remained the main form of communication between natives and whites until well after the turn of the century.

As one early settler observed: “In those early days we in British Columbia, were more or less a bi-lingual race. The custom’s officer on the wharf at New Westminster, pointing to some baggage, would say to some newly-arrived immigrant just off the boat from San Francisco, ‘Are these your “iktas”?’ (things), and the schoolboys at play would shout, ‘Klosh nanich,’ instead of ‘Look out.’ The children did not go to school to learn Chinook, they grew up with it.”

Joseph Richter, the son of Frank Richter and his Similkameen wife, Lucy, spoke the language fluently.

“At first our only neighbours were Similkameen Indians. We often hired them to help in the fields or on the range. Fluency in Chinook jargon was necessary and I learned to understand but not to speak the Okanagan tongue. On one occasion, when I was trading deer hides for buckskin gloves I heard the klootchman say to her husband in Okanagan, “These are very good skins.” But when he turned to me he said in Chinook, “Yaka skin tenas kloshe” (skins not much good). “Oh” [I] said, “Your klootchman just told you they were good skins.” After that I got the trade I expected.”

Some common words for the cowboy speaker of Chinook included:

kiuatan – horse moosmoos – cattle, buffalo

klootchman moosmoos – cow

kamooks – dog

lemel – mule

callipeen – rifle/musket

lope – rope

lewhet – whip

seapo – hat

siskiyou – a bobtailed horse

kishkish – to drive

tupso – grass

lamonti – mountain

stick shoes – boots

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.