Indigenous

Brush up your Salish: Expand your vocabulary with these Coastal First Nations terms

Get closer to your Vancouver Island home by learning the terms literally shaped by the Salish Sea

By Capital Daily Staff
October 8, 2020
Indigenous

Brush up your Salish: Expand your vocabulary with these Coastal First Nations terms

Get closer to your Vancouver Island home by learning the terms literally shaped by the Salish Sea

Colourized postcard showing Cowichan weir fishing, early 1900s.
Indigenous

Brush up your Salish: Expand your vocabulary with these Coastal First Nations terms

Get closer to your Vancouver Island home by learning the terms literally shaped by the Salish Sea

By Capital Daily Staff
October 8, 2020
Brush up your Salish: Expand your vocabulary with these Coastal First Nations terms
Colourized postcard showing Cowichan weir fishing, early 1900s.

Before Vancouver Island heard a single word of English, it buzzed with a dense tapestry of languages and dialects as varied as any corner of accent-rich Europe. In partnership with Indigenous language students Meaghie and Charles Champion, Capital Daily presents this new segment highlighting a new Indigenous term every week. Most of the terms are Hul'qumi'num (pronounced "Hul quimin um"), a Coast Salish language spoked by Cowichan peoples that was once ubiquitous from the Malahat all the way to modern Nanoose Bay. Although, eventually, we hope to feature words from all of Vancouver Island's various language groups.

nith ne snaw nutsa

(one who I am one with)

If you speak Hul'qumi'num, this is how you introduce your new lover to your family. In recent years, an increasing number of Indigenous couples in BC are resurrecting long-lost traditional customs to incorporate into their marriage ceremonies. Prior to European contact, Hul'qumi'num-speaking villages would have featured plural marriage. While men with multiple wives is and was a practice seen around the globe, Cowichan peoples also practiced the much more rare phenomenon of women holding multiple husbands.

sqwumey + shqwumey'ul'nuts

(dog + dog poop)

This month, UVic researchers unveiled new research from an island just off Ucluelet: Biological details of ancient “wooly” dogs that were kept by the ancestors of the Tseshaht First Nation as sources for hair to be used in weaving. Although the Tseshaht did not speak Hul'qumi'num, dogs (and their leavings) were equally to be found among the Hul'qumi'num-speaking villages surrounding the Salish Sea. According to legend from the land that is now Duncan, the first-ever Cowichan man to fall to earth quickly became lonely and prayed for a companion. So the Creator, naturally, sent him a dog.

Hace qa, waas ne wey'athut ' enth snu'wuy'ul

(Thank you for showing me all your teachings)

This is one of Hul'qumi'num’s deadliest insults. Hul'qumi'num doesn't have the unambiguous put-downs common to most European languages; there's no equivalent to "jackass" or "idiot." It's a much more context-heavy language that depends heavily on tone and delivery. So, the original peoples of Vancouver Island were a bit more patient and nuanced about how they told someone off. And so we get this; a phrase whose content ostensibly looks like a compliment, but where the word for "all" is spoken with devastating sarcasm. It's meant to be a jibe directed at know-it-alls, mansplainers, wiseacres and all other perpetrators of social blunder. As Meaghie explained, it's the Cowichan version of "ok boomer," but with less sting because the insulted party usually doesn't realize they've been insulted for a few days.

Thi Skwithe

(Big Island)

Before Vancouver Island became one of the dozen or so geographic features named after Captain George Vancouver, this was the moniker assigned to it by the people who knew it best. The many other islands of the Salish Sea often have more specific Indigenous names. Penelakut Island off Chemainus is the Hul'qumi'num term for “two logs covered in sand”, referring to early human settlements on the island. The SENĆOŦEN name for Salt Spring makes reference to the distinctive peaks at both ends of the island. But for the one island whose ends can never be seen at once from a canoe – and whose very presence makes the Salish Sea possible – big is indisputably all the description it needs. And with pre-contact Cowichan trade routes running as far as modern-day California and Alaska, the bigness of the Island was a particularly visceral thing for people who knew what it was to paddle its length.

We'll be adding to this list weekly. Watch for updates in the Capital Daily newsletter.

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