Siwash honours Chinook language’s role in our history: author

Martha Perkins - Vancouver Courier


Siwash Rock. Photo Dan Toulgoet

In the days when Chinook was commonly spoken along the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook word “Siwash” was not a derogatory term, says a Vancouver historian.

“In Chinook, Siwash just means an Indigenous person,” says Jean Barman, an award-winning author of books such as French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest.

“Siwash is emblematic of a time period when almost everyone knew Chinook and you could communicate across cultures,” she said in a telephone interview. “The name Siwash is a living recollection of a fact that Chinook brought people together for a long time. You may not have learned Musqueam or Squamish but you could communicate easily in Chinook. It’s a historical reality.”

There is a notice of motion in front of the Vancouver Park Board to change the name of Stanley Park’s Siwash Rock because, over time, Siwash became a pejorative term.

“The history of Stanley Park includes acts of dispossession and disrespect directed toward the Indigenous people who inhabited it,” says the notice of motion from commissioner Catherine Evans. “An ongoing symbol of disrespect is the name Siwash Rock.”

One of Barman’s Chinook dictionaries, written in 1935, translates Siwash — pronounced Sigh-wash — as “Indian or aboriginal, a savage.”

She says Siwash never referred to an Indigenous woman. Siwash meant Indian. The Chinook word for an Indigenous woman was Kloochman. People would sometimes refer to Siwash Kloochman, which meant Indian woman.

The use of the word savage reflects it was a commonplace term when the dictionary was written, not the word’s original meaning, Barman says. As well, the terms we use to name North America’s first peoples are constantly evolving. At one time it was acceptable to use the word Indian. It then changed to First Nations but today Indigenous is often the preferred term.

Chinook was one of the easiest languages to learn when French and English traders and settlers arrived on the West Coast. It has no verb tenses and is often spoken using hand language; it integrated Indigenous, French and English words. It became the primary means to communicate because it was widely known by so many groups.

Barman hopes that the name Siwash Rock endures as a way to recognize and honour the role that the Chinook language played in our history.

“I’m not in favour of giving into a petty time period when anyone calling someone an Indian was derogatory. It isn’t of itself a derogatory term.”

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