At a lunchtime conversation today a colleague brought up a tidbit that he had learned: that “Canuck,” as a slang term for Canadian, came from the Hawaiian word for “person.” How on earth could such a word come into North American usage? It’s (currently) not on the Wikipedia page for “Canuck”, but one does find it on the Talk page:
Many moons ago, in Canada’s formative years when fur trading was all the rage, the fur trading companies searched for anybody they could hire who could wield a beaver trap. In the far west of Canada at that time, there weren’t a lot of crowds. There were several Hawaiian islanders who came to the western shores of North America… They worked out just fine. The Hawaiian word for “Hawaiian person” (or just a “person”) is “KANAKA”… [this eventually] became “Canuck.”
This etymology is derided by the next contributor as unreliable, and the main entry asserts that the word’s origins are uncertain. And yet, in the Wikipedia entry on “Hawaii,” we read that:
James Cook named the archipelago as the Sandwich Islands in honor of his sponsor. Cook published the islands’ location and rendered the native name as Owyhee. This spelling lives on in Owyhee County, Idaho. It was named after three native Hawaiian members of a trapping party who went missing in that area.
Furthermore, in the Northwest Hawai’i Times, we read about the City of Kalama, Washington, named after John Kalama from Maui. It also claims that:
Hawaiians had a big impact in the early history of the Pacific Northwest. Have you heard of the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, or the Owyhee Lake and the town of Owyhee in Nevada, or the river and town of Kalama and even the town of Friday Harbor? These were named after “Kanakas,” otherwise known as Sandwich Islanders, or Hawaiians.
In the voyages of discovery in the late 1700s and early 1800s, ship captains found the Sandwich (named by James Cook for his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich) or Hawaiian Islands a great port of call and quickly found the value of the “Owyhees.” This is why many Hawaiians became regularly employed on both merchant and whaling ships.
The first Hawaiians were recruited in 1811 by the North West Company, twelve for ship deckhands and twelve to work in the fur trade brigades. Part of their value was in their canoeing and swimming skills. The French Voygeurs had great canoe handling skills but could not swim. When a canoe flipped, everything would be lost, often even the men. But with Owyhees along, there would be excellent swimmers to save men and recover goods from the bottom of rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which merged with the rival North West Company, decided, as a “safety device,” to put an Owyhee in every canoe with the French Voyageurs.
During the fur trapping era, Hawaiians made many trips into the interior, to Fort Spokane and beyond to the Grand Tetons. This is how Owyhee and other Hawaiian names were attached to a number of interior geographic features such as rivers, lakes and even mountain ranges.
Interesting – I had no idea!