POCATELLO — After European fur trappers arrived in the Gem State, they struggled to communicate with Shoshone Native Americans. The Shoshoni wove their arms back and forth attempting to introduce themselves to the clueless trappers.
Idaho State University Anthropology professor Dr. Christopher Loether explained what those Shoshone tried to say during a Bannock County Historical Society presentation called “Before the Shoshone Language” held earlier this month.
All that arm motioning didn’t translate into “Snake” or “Weaving.”
“It (meant) the salmon. What they’re saying is ‘I’m a Salmon eater.’ On the plains they don’t have Salmon, so Europeans interpreted it to be ‘snake.’ They became known as the Snake Indians,” he said. “Their name in Shoshone means ‘from across the water.’ It explains that they came from the Snake River and the border between Idaho and Oregon,”
It’s believed the Shoshone originated from the Pacific Northwest near the Columbia River, where they hunted bison. In search of more game, they headed to Idaho, and from here, spread throughout the west. The language is now found from Idaho to Colorado to California.
In the 1970s a University of Utah professor changed the name of “The Great Basin Shoshone Language” to “Numic” or what’s considered the mother tongue of what’s called the “Great Basin” languages.
“Numic is the name these people used for themselves,” Loether said.
Census records from 1990 show that 2,284 Native Americans spoke Shoshoni, while in 2000 that number rose to 2,724.
“Who knows why it went down to 2,211 in 2010,” he said.
Loether questioned the validity of such research.
“Just be aware that not everyone is asked the question ‘what language do you speak at home?’ These figures are low, and they could be at least double. The figures are probably closer to 5,000. There are roughly 13,000 to 14,000 Shoshone across the west.”
Many of them live in one of 15 Indian reservations.
“There are about 25 different dialects out of Fort Hall. There are different ways of speaking at Fort Hall. Add those other 14 reservations, and you can imagine all kinds of ways of speaking Shoshone,” he said.
Shoshone has no standardized form.
“It’s people basically speaking the language they learned from their families when they were growing up,” he said.
The Shoshone language proves very descriptive, Loether said.
“Inkom is a Shoshone name. It means Red Rabbit and refers to a rock formation heading south on I-15. Shoshone names tend to be analyzable,” he said.
Those analyzable words help linguists reconstruct words for everything from plants to animals to structures.
“It tells us about the environment and houses. It tells us if there were kings, chiefs or judges. Linguistic paleontology is a picture of a society. We get the archeology record where people lived 4,000 to 5,000 years ago,” he said.
According to Loether, linguists break languages down into mother-daughter lingos and mother-grandmother languages. From there linguists determine what languages are related to each other. They’ll then break that vernacular down into “proto languages” that refer to a lingo researchers know existed but can’t prove.
“It’s reconstructing earlier forms of languages to see what languages are related to each other and to see something about their lifestyle. It’s reconstructing language (names for) animals, plants, different types of structure and religious terms. It’s reconstructing the lifestyle of earlier people,” he said.
From there, linguists reconstruct the early languages and determine how they relate to daughter languages. He noted “cognates” or words that are related to a single word from another language. Linguists then ask why the language, its pronunciations and grammar changes.
“All kinds of things are going on when you borrow words,” he said.
Tracing a specific tribe’s origins often serves a political purpose. The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires that ancient Native American remains be turned over to tribes for burial.
“You can’t stash it away in a museum like they used to. You can’t keep sacred items. You have to reparate it to the tribe,” he said.
He noted the remains of a 13,000 year old Native American found in a Buhl gravel pit, first studied at ISU and then quickly given to Bannock-Shoshone officials for burial.
“The federal agencies wanted to know who lived there and during what time. They determined that through materials found underground. That’s a good example of how it works,” he said.
To learn more about the Shoshone people and their language, Loether suggested reading retired University of Reno professor and linguistic archeologist Catherine Fowler’s book “The Great Basin: People and Place in Ancient Times (Popular Southwest Archaeology). It can be found on Amazon.com.
“It’s her whole life’s work,” he said.