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Dentalia Shells
These thin, tubular mollusks formed the currency of commerce throughout the Pacific Northwest as long as 3000 years ago. Pre-European civilization is often considered a barter economy, with, for instance, coastal tribes swapping oolichan grease directly for prized Oregon obsidian. Commodity traders, however, could rely on this wampum to close a transaction when interest in the goods was decidedly one-sided. Called hykwa in Chinook jargon, dentalia shells possessed all the necessary attributes of money, being portable, recognizable and durable but rare and desirable enough to foster trade. Being available in a variety of sizes, the tusk-like shells were even divisible into small change. Professional traders are known to have tattooed measuring lines on their forearms as a handy calculator of individual shell values. Only a handful of groups, including the Nuu-chah-nulth in the vicinity of Tofino, possessed dentalia in quantities sufficient enough to make them wealthy. Harvesting the deep water mollusks was no easy undertaking however. From a dugout canoe a long, broom-like apparatus was thrust straight down into the muddy sea bottom then retrieved. With any luck a shell or two would be trapped amongst the stiff twigs at the end of the handle. Dentalia were also ostentatiously displayed as symbols of wealth and power in the form of body adornments. Perhaps most recognizable are the breast plates invariably worn by cheesy Hollywood Indians.
Illustration by Manami Kimura
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Tongue Twisters
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Written by Brian Grover   
Monday, 19 February 2007 11:45
Tongue Twisters
Place names of First Nations extraction are common enough hereabouts that localities like Tsawwassen, Nanaimo, Sechelt and Squamish immediately leap to mind. The skunk, raccoon and moose all owe their handles to the original inhabitants of eastern North America.

On the west coast of British Columbia sockeye and chinook, delicious smoked, baked or broiled, swam into the lexicon from Chinook Jargon. Sockeye or suka meant literally: the fish of fishes. Chum salmon -- originally pronounced tzum samum -- came from the Sne Nay Muxw language. Salal also arrived via the lingua franca called Chinook Jargon. Bushwacker's bane might have been a more appropriate name. The geoduck, meaning "neck-attached," is not a gooey duck. Gooey yes but the etymology is strictly Chinook Jargon. Neither is that camp robber, the whisky-jack, a souse after a hard day of pilfering peanuts. From the original Cree, wiskatjan got the misappellation through a case of mispronunciation, Whisky John, with the diminutive being misapplied.

Chinook Jargon, incidentally, was a trading language that developed to facilitate communication among the diverse original inhabitants of western Canada and later, those who showed up to barter blankets, bullets and booze. Chinook Jargon was a pidgin comprised mainly of the Chinook language of Oregon, the Nuu-cha-nulth language of Vancouver Island's west coast and French and English. Apart from being a fish name and that of both a language and a pidgin, chinook has the added meaning of a warm winter wind.

 

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