In a Manner of Speaking

If you’re looking for the definition of “Umpqua” you’ve come to the wrong place. But the origin of many of our region’s other colorful names can be found in Chinook Trade Jargon.

Story by Robert Leo HeilmanPhotography courtesy of Douglas County Museum

The names of several Douglas County places and landmarks are words that are unique to the Pacific Northwest. 

 In this 1929 photo, O.C. Applegate (second from left) poses with costumed Native Americans and a railroad official at the opening of Southern Pacific's Modoc line to Klamath Falls.

In this 1929 photo, O.C. Applegate (second from left) poses with costumed Native Americans and a railroad official at the opening of Southern Pacific's Modoc line to Klamath Falls.

Umpqua, the most prominent example, is a word of unknown origin that is not known to exist in any language other than English — and then only as a place name for a Native American tribe, our home valleys and our rivers. No one knows what, if anything, Umpqua meant before Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trappers arrived in the early 19th century and applied it to the land and an Athabascan-speaking tribe. 

Kalapuya, Calapooia and Calapooya are variations on the name of a native tribe who lived in the southern Willamette Valley and the northern part of what is now Douglas County around Yoncalla (the latter a native word meaning “valley of eagles”). 

Interstate 5 today crosses the Calapooya Divide, which separates modern Lane County from Douglas County. Calapooya Creek rises east of Sutherlin and flows nearly 40 miles to the Umpqua River.


As bits of logger slang, some jargon survived in common use into the 1970s. The jargon consists of about 400 to 600 words, many of which have multiple meanings.


Most of the local names we think of as Native American actually are derived from Chinook Trade Jargon, a simplified language that is a mix of Native, French and English words used up and down the West Coast in the mid-19th century and which stayed in occasional use into the early 20th century. As bits of logger slang, some jargon survived in common use into the 1970s. The jargon consists of about 400 to 600 words, many of which have multiple meanings. 

Skookum, one of the  most  common  jargon  names in Douglas County, can mean “strength” or “power,” but also “spirit” or “ghost.” We have Skookum Creek, Skookum Lake, Skookum Prairie and a Skookum Chuck Camp upriver from Tiller. 

Combining “skookum” with “chuck” means “strong water.” I have heard older loggers speak of having “enough skookum” to pull a load uphill or to lift a log. The Skookum- Tyee yarder was a popular bit of heavy logging equipment made by Tyee Machinery Works for many years prior to the company’s demise in the early 1980s. 

 Native carvings in the Umpqua River near Scottsburg.

Native carvings in the Umpqua River near Scottsburg.

Tyee can refer to a chief or to salmon. It’s also the name of an unincorporated community on the Umpqua River between Sutherlin and Elkton. “Hy’as tyee” means “big chief.” 

Cull is a word commonly applied to rotted, unsellable logs. It is derived in part from the English word meaning to select, as into cull a herd, but it is also related to cultus, a Chinook jargon word meaning “bad” or “worthless.” Cultus Creek and Cultus Lake, near Azalea, somehow both acquired this term as a name. What made the creek and lake so bad or worthless? We’re left to wonder. 

Toketee is a jargon word that means “pretty,” and is the apt name of a falls on the North Umpqua. Toketee Lake and Toketee Ranger Station are named for the waterfall. Not far from them is Lemolo Lake, another jargon word meaning “wild, untamed.” 

Oregon has several streams named Deer Creek, in addition to the one that flows beneath Jackson Street in Roseburg. But there is also Mowich Creek and Mowich Park locally — “mowich” is a jargon word for deer.

Berry Creek runs through the Ollala Valley. Ollala, sometimes rendered as "olallie," is a jargon word for berries. Tenas, meaning “small,” adorns Tenas Peak. And tolo, meaning “to win,” adorns Tolo Mountain. 

Illahe, the name of a spot on the North Umpqua above Dry Creek, can mean“place,”but is also used to designate a few acres of flat ground in the mountains.


LEARN THE JARGON

Chinook jargon is fun to use informally among friends. Learn a few phrases and you’ll be able to mamook wa-wa (make talk) and mamook hee- hee (have fun):

  • Nika tum-tum (Nika, Nesika): I, me, my or mine

  • Tum-tum: heart or love

  • Nika tum- tum can also express affection, a way of saying “my dear”

  • Pelton: Crazy

  • Kinoo: Tobacco

  • Pelton kinoos: crazy tobacco

  • Kloshe: Good

  • Muckamuck: Food

  • Tillicum: People, friends or friend

  • Kloshe muckamuck; kloshe tillicum; kloshe hee-hee can describe a pleasant supper party