Chinook Jargon (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Jun 14 21:32:26 UTC 2004

Once-dying Chinook language finds future in voices of children

By Nancy Bartley
Seattle Times staff reporter

GRANDE RONDE RESERVATION, Ore. ? To Tony Johnson, the Chinook jargon
widely spoken by his ancestors was not just a second-class language
used for trade but a language of tribal rituals, family gatherings and
courtship. Until recently, it was almost extinct.

Now, due largely to the 33-year-old Johnson, who regards each word of
his ancestral tongue as an heirloom, the jargon also known as
"Chinuk-wawa" has become a language of the future.

In the seven years he has worked for the Confederated Tribes of the
Grand Ronde to revitalize the language, Johnson, who grew up in Raymond
on Willapa Bay, has developed a teaching program that has become a
model for tribes around the region.

He has been "vital to the language having any future," said Portland
linguist Henry Zenk, with whom Johnson created a written Chinuk-wawa

What makes the program successful is the traditional
master-and-apprentice approach, in which students learn from elders,
then become teachers themselves. That's coupled with the more
modern-day concept of language immersion, in which students speak
Chinuk-wawa in and outside the classroom.

When tribal spokesman Brent Merrill, 43, was growing up, Chinuk-wawa was
a language elders would use with one another when they didn't want
younger people to know what they were saying.

Now the Grand Ronde program is so successful, he said, children here use
Chinuk-wawa to keep secrets from adults.

"When they don't want parents to hear about something, they switch
over," he said.

On a bookshelf in his office, Johnson displays a teaching certificate
issued to him recently by the state of Oregon, making him the first
licensed teacher of the uniquely expressive language, which was spoken
two centuries ago by 100,000 tribal members, traders and explorers from
Northern California to Southern Alaska.

Three other licenses also have been issued ? one to Zenk, the other two
to tribal members here who learned Chinuk-wawa through adult-education
classes taught by Johnson on the reservation.

"It wasn't long ago ? about 20 years ? that the last of our elders who
spoke it was passing away," said tribal teacher Bobby Mercier. "We are
bringing a lot of our elders back by teaching the language. It's our

Teaching 4-year-olds

Johnson, the son of a tribal chairman, has found that preserving a
language must be undertaken on many fronts. In addition to creating an
alphabet, he has designed a computer program so the Chinuk-wawa
characters can be typed.

He teaches 4-year-olds at the tribal day-care center and has shared
meals with the few remaining tribal elders who still remember the
language, gleaning from them Chinook words like taqwfla, (hazelnuts),
salt-tsfqw (salt water) and tilixaN (friend).

And each of the past six years, he has organized a Chinuk-wawa workshop
that draws linguists, historians and tribal members. Johnson wishes he
could teach the language to the surviving Chinooks, but the tribe of
2,000, which once thrived near Chinook, Pacific County, has no money
for such programs.

The lucrative Spirit Mountain Casino, on the Grand Ronde Reservation,
makes the language program affordable.

Other tribes with casino money frequently inquire about the tribe's
success, but the program is a commitment not just of money, but of time
and tenacity, Johnson said.

Still, he hopes other tribes will want to learn Chinuk-wawa, and that
students he's teaching now will "grow up and marry each other and raise
Chinuk-wawa-speaking households. Or become linguists and come back here
and do what we're doing."

Johnson was so determined that Chinuk-wawa would live on through his own
son, Sammy, that he began talking to Sammy and singing him Chinuk-wawa
lullabies even before the baby was born.

Teacher Jackie Whisler records Chinuk-wawa words spoken by Lauren Lucio,
5, at the Twah Sunchako preschool.]

To lose one's language is to lose one's culture, Johnson said.

Once a strong tribe

The Chinooks were once a strong tribe with related bands located near
the mouth of the Columbia River, from Pacific County east to the
Cascades. For thousands of years, they fished and traded with other
tribes using two languages ? one a jargon for trade, the other pure

In the late 1700s, when ships began stopping in the harbors and trading
with the Chinooks, English and French words were added to the trade
language, which became known as Chinuk-wawa, or Chinook jargon.

It was this language Lewis and Clark encountered when they arrived at
the Columbia River in 1805 and were greeted by Chinooks offering boiled
roots, dried sturgeon and potatoes.

"What they were experiencing was clearly Chinuk-wawa," Johnson said.
Though Lewis made notations of words in his journal, the field notes,
believed to include an entire vocabulary, did not survive the trip

Contact with whites exposed the Chinooks to deadly diseases, and by the
mid-1800s the remaining Chinooks were sent to reservations. By the
1850s, when many tribes were gaining federal recognition, the Chinooks
were overlooked. Many went to the Grand Ronde, where they were among at
least 20 other bands with 20 different dialects.

There, Chinuk-wawa became no longer just a trade language but one
necessary for day-to-day communication among the diverse bands ? the
first language of those born on the reservation.

"It was the language used when someone courted their mate, when someone
went to the post office, when someone went to the sweat lodge," Johnson

It took on the unique elements of the Grand Ronde culture, Johnson said,
from how tribal members viewed nature, their spiritual life and their
health. While the phrase "I have a backache" almost implies in English
an ownership of the condition, in Chinuk-wawa the words mean "there is
a sickness living in my back," implying "an animosity to illness,"
Johnson said.

And the simple greeting, "How are you?" is more a question of the
condition of your spirit than a casual inquiry.

Listened to father's stories

Johnson grew up with his parents and a brother in a two-story house in
Raymond, off the reservation.

As a young man, he sailed and fished in Willapa Bay and listened to his
father tell stories of the past. But he had little of his culture
except the few words in Chinuk-wawa he learned from his elders or could
recall from his past.

"Hum-upuch," his grandmother called him when he was a toddler. "Stinky

Johnson graduated with degrees in anthropology and silversmithing from
Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Now divorced, he is
raising 4-year-old Sammy in a small, gray rambler in Sheridan, a few
miles east of the reservation.

Since Sammy was a toddler, Johnson has taken him to the homes of the few
tribal elders he knew who spoke the language. When Sammy utters the
word "dret" ? an expression similar to uh-huh ? Johnson remembers the
now-deceased woman they once visited.

"It pleases me so much to hear the voice of our elders in our children."

Each day, he and Sammy go to the reservation's Twah Sunchako preschool ?
Chinook jargon for "A Bright Day is Coming."

In a classroom in the sprawling, gray education building, parents drop
off their preschoolers for a half-day of language immersion. A
no-English rule is observed by all ? even the youngest preschoolers
correct each other when someone lapses into English.

Tony Johnson, son of a Chinook tribal chairman, holds his son, Sammy, 4,
who is a fluent speaker of the Chinuk-wawa language taught to him by
his dad.]

The room was filled with signs identifying common classroom objects ?
clock, drum and fish in the aquarium ? as tiktik, pumpum and phish.

"When these kids get old, they'll be fluent speakers," said teacher
Bobby Mercier, who was first exposed to Chinuk-wawa as a child. Now not
only is he fluent, so is his 6-year-old son; his 2-year-old son also is
learning the language.

The reservation's other licensed Chinuk-wawa teacher is Jackie Whisler,
whose dream was to carry on a conversation completely in Chinuk-wawa
before her grandmother died. Now her own granddaughter and a niece are
among the preschool students, and her daughter is in the
adult-education class.

Johnson and Sammy share the language in daily rituals of their own.

Each morning when Sammy gets up, he talks about his dreams in
Chinuk-wawa. And before he goes to bed, he tells his father the
condition of his heart.

"Nayka qat mayka, papa," he says.

"Nayka qat mayka, Sammy," Johnson replies.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522, or nbartley at

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