Two Research Ideas from Northwest Coast-North Pacific History

As I've been doing more and more research for my thesis on late 19th century Tlingit history, (prospectus here), I've come across a great many unanswered questions—unanswered, at least, according to all the information I've seen or heard of. (It's rather difficult, I think, for a scholar to prove the idea hasn't been explored before, just as it's difficult to prove any negative.) Here are two questions I've come across that lie outside the scope of my thesis that nevertheless seem extremely interesting and worthy of further research.

Image at right: A Raven's Brew logo by Ray Troll, both famous in my hometown of Ketchikan.

If you're a student or a curious citizen of any kind who has knowledge on these topics or a strong will to go out and learn about them, I think it would be amazing for you to do research on these issues. If you do, and if you find success, be sure to tell me about it! Here are the questions:

  1. How widespread was the use of Chinuk wawa (Chinook jargon) before 1800? A lot of people who live in the Pacific Northwest have heard of Chinook jargon before: It was a trade language in heavy use up and down the coast during the 19th century, and a lot of words we still use in the Northwest, like skookum, cheechako, potlatch, and chuck (as in saltchuck). The language originated among the Chinook people of present-day Oregon, and it's known that they conducted massive amounts of trade, particularly up the Columbia River at sites like the Dalles. There was also a great deal of commerce that went on up and down the coast, long before Europeans arrived, all the way from northern California to Lingít Aaní (Southeast Alaska). So, if Chinuk wawa seems to have come into widespread use after Europeans and Americans came to the Northwest, is it possible it was already widespread beforehand? Is it possible that Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian people, for example, might have been familiar with it before 1800, in spite of its origins being many hundreds of miles away? I don't know how one might go about investigating this, (I think you'd have to "mine the sources" very deeply), but it would be extremely interesting to know.

  2. What were the experiences of Unangan (Aleut) and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) men who came to Lingít Aaní? There were a great many Unangan and Sugpiaq men who were brought to Southeast Alaska by the Russian-America Company in order to hunt sea otters. The Russians needed these people's expertise in gathering the animals for their furs, and under RAC policy many villages were forced to provide 50% of their able-bodied men each season. In return they received rations of food and tobacco, and money for each fur they brought in, with the cost of their supplies deducted. I think there should be a detailed study done of these hunters who worked so far from their homes. (Perhaps there has been a book written about it, but I don't know.) Did the men resent the Russians? Were there any rebellions? Were there conflicts or misunderstandings between the Unangan and Sugpiaq, or were they kept apart? How many gained power through the system as overseers, or saw it as advantageous? Lastly, how did their communities change after Alaska was purchased by the U.S. in 1867 and the Russian-American Company left for good? As you can see, there are tons of potential questions and a whole lot of history to investigate.
Anyway, those are only two of the incredibly interesting topics I've been encountering in my thesis work, and of course during my entire college experience here at Georgetown. History really is amazing: There's so much of our past that we don't know, so much that we do know and can know, and also much that has been distorted. Anyone can be a participant in exploring all that knowledge and setting the record straight.

Image at left: Photo of an Unangan hunter, taken from the blog Skinboat Journal.

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