When Did Northwesterners Stop Speaking Chinook Jargon?

Feb 21, 2016

Chinook Jargon was a trade language that once ruled the Northwest. But when was it used, and how many people spoke it? Listener Michelle LeSourd of Seattle asked KUOW's Local Wonder. 

I stopped by Michelle LeSourd’s house to see what sparked her interest in the language.

On her coffee table was an unpublished memoir, “Incidents in the Life of Francis Ancil LeSourd.” There’s a line inside that inspired her question.

“It just simply says, ‘both my grandfather and my father spoke Chinook, a mixture of English and Indian languages,’” she said.

LeSourd’s ancestry traces to Whidbey Island. Her great, great-grandfather settled there in the 1880s. He was a white guy, a sort of gentleman farmer and member of the territorial legislature.

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But how did he come to speak Chinook Jargon? LeSourd could only guess.

My next stop was the Internet where, wouldn’t ya know, there was a site called chinookjargon.com.

David Robertson, a linguist in Spokane, is the keeper of this site. Robertson, whose Ph.D focused on Chinook Jargon, was not surprised that LeSourd’s ancestors on Whidbey Island spoke the language. He told me that early white settlers communicated with Native Americans in Chinook Jargon after arriving in the Pacific Northwest.

“Whidbey Island was one of the first settled places by non-native people in what was called North Oregon, in other words Washington,” he said. “Whidbey Island is kind of the earliest cradle of Chinook Jargon use on Puget Sound.”

The story of Chinook Jargon – or Chinuk Wawa, its Native name – is a story of contact in the Northwest. Robertson said it evolved as Native and non-Native people met and needed a way to communicate – for trade or just to talk.

Documentation of the language dates back to 1805, Robertson said.

“In the journals of Lewis & Clark, anecdotes like this: ‘Native people would comment’” – and here Robertson broke into Chinuk Wawa – “That would mean, ‘Hey, great gun. I’ve never seen one like that before.’”

Michelle LeSourd became curious about Chinook language after reading an unpublished memoir called 'Incidents in the Life of Francis Ancil LeSourd.'
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

So what would our local tribes have to say about this language?

Tony Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, met me near Long Beach, Washington, at the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

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“We’re at a place called Chinook Point; people know it as Fort Columbia State Park,” Johnson said. “A very important place for us historically.”

This was a key spot for the fur trade some 200 years ago. When strangers met here, they needed a common language. 

“People, by the way, have debated the origin of this language, Chinuk Wawa,” he said. “All I can tell you is my elders told me that it existed before European contact.”

Johnson, a fluent speaker and teacher of the language, said Chinuk Wawa is an offshoot of the Chinookan language, which was exceedingly difficult to learn. So the Chinook people created this shorthand, initially as a way to talk with other tribes.

“We were able to go into those communities and sing a love song to a girl we thought was particularly beautiful,” Johnson said. “It allowed this communication over a great distance.”

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Over time, explorers, traders and settlers helped the language spread far and wide. And it became a creole, or first language, for a generation of children. Johnson said there were roughly 100,000 speakers of Chinuk Wawa by the 1890s, extending from northern California to southeast Alaska and to the Rocky Mountains. 

A passage from the newspaper Kamloops Wawa in May 1895, which linguist David Robertson called “an example of the distasteful social-control uses of Chinook Jargon.” Translation: "Nobody shall travel anywhere just for fun, go to town for fun..."
Credit Courtesy of David Robertson

Chinuk Wawa was also a lively presence on the docks of early Seattle and Victoria, B.C., and the language of missionaries.

One holdout, however, was Chief Seattle. He preferred his native Duwamish, so anyone who wanted to speak with him had to learn Duwamish or find someone who could interpret.

Chinuk Wawa may have petered out, but it left an imprint on the Northwest. You can still see it in lots of place names.

There’s Alki in West Seattle, a derivative of aski, which means “future.” And there’s Tukwila, which means hazelnut.

There are other words, too, like Tolo – a formal dance in which the girls invite their date. And mucky-muck, which means a powerful person. 

Although Chinuk Wawa flourished through the 1800s, the language began to die out by the 1950s. Twenty years ago, only a few elders spoke it.

“I’ve known people in my life who were literally abused in the context of Indian boarding school for using this language,” Johnson said. “You were not to use this language. So there were active efforts to see these languages removed from the face of the earth, really.”

Johnson and others helped save it from extinction. He worked with the Grand Ronde tribes in Oregon to create a 500-page dictionary and an immersion program for school kids.

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Johnson is teaching the language to his children, and he hopes his grandchildren might be raised in it. But the wind is not at his back. 

The Chinook Indian Nation includes just a few thousand people, and it’s still trying to gain federal recognition. Without it, there’s no land, no money and no home base for this language to settle.

“We struggle so mightily to have a community where you can have a critical mass, or our own schools,” Johnson said. “Until Chinook status is worked out and we have a place of our own, we’re going to continue to have a very difficult fight to preserve this language.”

Most of Johnson’s work on Chinuk Wawa has been for other tribes. He hopes to retire someday working for his own tribe.

“Anybody that’s living here in Pacific Northwest should know something about Chinuk Wawa because it’s an important part of your roots. This language, this knowledge, has a right to live in this place. To flourish in this place.”

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