Cattle-Headed People and Round-heads

I am not a linguist, but have a lot of experience researching and using native languages especially Chinuk Wawa, Kalapuyan, and Athapaskan languages. In recent research, I found in the John P. Harrington microfilms (reel 28) a word for the Kalapuyans that appears to originate from the Takelmans. The research notes in the film were taken in 1933 when Harrington came to visit the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations, after some time there, Harrington took a few members of the Takelma tribes down to southern Oregon to visit their former homelands and perhaps elicit place-names and other comments about their cultures. Frances Johnson and Molly Orton both went with Harrington, Johnson was Takelma, and Orton was upper Takelma or Latgawa.

The word that was said in Chinuk wawa is Musmus Latet, or “cattle head” as a name for the Kalapuyans. Mus mus meaning cow or cattle and latet from French “la tete” for the head. The Kalapuyans had a cultural practice of head flattening the skulls of their babies in a baby board as a sign of upper-class status. The Takelma word stated for the same phase was Takaxta hipal – flat-head.

Harrington R28 P361 excerpt stating cattle headed for name of Kalapuyans

Flat headedness as a trait is a part of many cultures, the Chinookans, Kalapuyans, down the Oregon coast as far as the Alseas, and over into the Great Basin and Plateau region, ie: flat-head peoples is a common enough term for many tribes. At the time that Johnson told Harrington this name for Kalapuyans, they were traveling in the Rogue River Valley visiting her former homes, they were likely in Grants Pass area or by Canyonville- Cow Creek homelands, also Takelma speakers, which is when she began talking about the Umpqua peoples as being called Yoncallas, the name for the southern Kalapuya tribe, as if the name applied to all of the people in the Umpqua basin, which is another revelation. There would have been lots of intermarriage between all of the peoples in the Umpqua Basin so they may have been thought of as one large tribe even though it was clear to anyone that there were different languages spoken in the basin. The Kalapuyan name for themselves was Kalapuya, or amenmei, people. Most of their neighbors just called the Kalapuyans, Kalapuya, Tualatin or other references to a large band like Santiam.

Chief Alquema/Joseph Hutchins 1841 Santiam Kalapuya Chief- note his clearly flattened head

There also is one additional page which mentions the name musmus latet again,

Harrington R28 P387 section

The transcription of this section is, Fr. (Frances Johnson) Takaxta hipal [Takelma], flathead, at Wilammet shinney games we called them musmus latith [Chinuk wawa], cow heads, & they called us round heads, Umpquas are round-headed like Rogue Rivers. Fr. Yakal, upper Umpqua country Ya kala’ tribe, ie: Yoncalla…

This further description adds a lot to the previous. Shinny games, like most games are fun and exciting and full of people trying to get the upper hand on the others, trying to win their bets. This name-calling would have been part of the fun of the game between Takelmas and Kalapuyans or even Umpquas and Kalapuyans. This seems to me like a form of ribbing one another and would have been hilarious to the participants, an example of Indian humor.

Further, since this phrase has not really appeared elsewhere in this form it is a unique find in Harrington’s notes. David Robertson has found a notation where James Winslow joked about flat-headed people looking like cattle, (Found: A Jargon word for ‘flat-headed Indians ). This sort of name would have come about with the introduction of cattle in the region as David notes.

One additional issue here is that this may be a unique nickname given to the Kalapuyans by the Takelmans. It would not have originated on the Columbia because most of the tribes around the Columbia had head flattening. Therefore, the Takelma name for Kalapuya people in Chinuk Wawa suggests a southern dialect of the language, with a few special phrases. This may easily have occurred as Chinuk Wawa spread around the region perhaps in the 18th century in time for the fir trade to begin spreading the language further. We do know there was a northern dialect that is called Haida Jargon, and that the Chinuk Wawa at Grand Ronde is also a dialect of the original, somewhat changed within the 29 to 35 tribes who lived at the reservation for 100 years. The joining of the central dialect on the Columbia , the likely origin of the jargon, with the southern dialect south of the Umpqua valley may be a worthwhile study for an enterprising student. Chinuk wawa appears in many ethnographic texts taken by linguistics anthropologists from as far south as northern California. One large text was recorded by George Gibbs in northern California in around 1851. As well we know Gibbs was hired by Indian Agent Reddick McKee to be the translator of the northern California treaty expedition in California and had previously learned Chinook Jargon at Astoria. It has been surmised that he used his knowledge of the language to translate the treaties to the northern California tribes. This then suggests that the Northern California tribes had the language in parts at very least and even perhaps just enough words for translations.

The finding of musmus latet may not at all be that significant but it does perhaps open up the option of further research into language studies of southern Oregon and Northern California tribes. Clearly, it suggests that the tribes were friendly enough with one another to rib each other and get a laugh once in a while from harmless but funny names.

3 thoughts on “Cattle-Headed People and Round-heads

  1. I really enjoyed the connection of the Native humor. To this day, if you aren’t being teased or given a nickname by your aunties and uncles, then you will grow up in obscurity.

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