Chinuk Wawa: A Local Oregon Tribe’s Efforts to Save a Dying Language

Artwork by Duane Pasco

Spend enough time in the Pacific Northwest and you’ll come across unusual place-names: Cultus Creek, Moolack Lake, Tyee Cellars, Tillicum Beach. Spend enough time in British Columbia, you’ll still hear folk say “muckamuck” or “skookum.”

What you’re seeing and hearing are some of the last vestiges of Chinook Jargon, a once-common trade language that hybridized numerous native languages, French, and English. During the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century, Chinook Jargon was used by as many as 250,000 people along the Pacific Slope, from Alaska to Oregon. Like the other thousands of languages that were once spoken across the U.S., Chinook Jargon all but disappeared under the hegemony of the English language.

But not quite. For the past dozen-or-so years, the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, just an hour north of Corvallis, have made intensive efforts to revitalize Chinook Jargon—or, as they call it, Chinuk Wawa—through childhood immersion programs and adult literacy classes.


There is some disagreement as to the origins of Chinook Jargon. The most widely accepted theory holds that the enormous linguistic diversity of the Northwest coast necessitated a single common language for trade purposes. Chinook Jargon was a true hybrid, shifting and differing from place to place and person to person, and constantly pulling in new words and phrases. It dramatically evolved with the arrival of new-tongued fur traders, mainly the French and English, who both introduced new words and anglicized many of the more difficult-to-pronounce native sounds.

But Chinook Jargon was still predominately a native language, and important as a native language, especially so in the case of the Grande Ronde. The Grande Ronde reservation was created in the mid-19th century to house various tribes and bands from all parts of Western Oregon—the Umpqua, Molalla, Rogue River, Kalapuya, Chasta—after they’d been forcibly removed from their original homelands. Chinuk Wawa became the primary linguistic bridge between the eight different tribal languages and dozens of tribal dialects originally spoken at Grande Ronde. Within a few generations, Chinuk Wawa was the language of the Grande Ronde reservation.

At the same time, it was a dying language. Some of this was a “natural” process: almost inevitably the Grande Ronde community became bilingual in English, and gradually shifted its language allegiance. But most of the language-death troubles can be directly attributed to the same racist policies of forced assimilation that were subjected upon the majority of tribes across the US: native youth were sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their native tongue; the federal policy of Termination dissolved the sovereignty of tribes; etc. Every few years another elder speaker of Chinuk Wawa would die; because their grandchildren weren’t being taught Chinuk Wawa to replenish the heritage language, with every elder’s death the language, too, died. Chinuk Wawa was in danger of extinction.

The loss of a culture’s language is often the harbinger of the loss of that culture. As Paul Bloom wrote, “Every language contains its own metaphysics—tacit commitments as to what parts of reality are worth talking about and how these parts should be packaged.” The loss of language thus affects a culture’s perspectives, values, and heritage—songs, myths, and poetry may be lost in translation. As the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde puts it: “Preserving the original common language of our community is an important aspect of preserving our identity.”

It’s not simply a matter of communities’ survival, either. As John Medicine Horse Kelly, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Education, Research and Culture at Carleton University, told the Eugene Register Guard in 2003, “In Canada, the suicide rate for aboriginal youth is the highest in the world. But we’re finding that in communities where the language is spoken and the culture is strong, the suicide rate is much lower. (Language revitalization) is not just a work to save language, but a work to save lives.”

Fortunately, there are success stories in revitalizing language. Take Hebrew, which became extinct in everyday use around 200 CE, but was revived as a spoken and literary language in the 19th century. Hebrew is now spoken by an estimated 5.3 million people worldwide. Other relatively-successful cases of language revitalization include Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian. These examples lend a small hope to a grim future: over 500 languages are considered nearly extinct, and between 50-90% of all current languages are estimated to become extinct by the year 2100.

The Grande Ronde’s efforts.  

Grande Ronde presents an interesting case. The 2000 census counted a resident population of only 55 persons. The reservation is tiny, a non-contiguous 16 square miles. But it has a few important things going for it: fierce determination and dedication in the effort to revitalize Chinuk Wawa; a well-organized Tribal Culture Education Department; and Spirit Mountain Casino, which provides significant revenue for all language revitalization projects. These projects include adult Chinuk Wawa language classes, full-immersion schooling for pre-school children, and partial-immersion kindergarten schooling. Kids in the full immersion program meet five days a week in a learning environment in which no English is spoken. The immersion schooling’s goal is to create a new generation of speakers, a generation who may intermarry and create fluent households, and so on: a true commitment to replenishment and revitalization. A decade into the program’s mission, 95% of students complete the program. As to whether or not they will continue to speak Chinuk Wawa into adulthood, it’s too soon to tell; but, according to the tribe, the students’ attitudes towards the program is one of increased self esteem and pride. In light of all that has befallen them as a culture, this alone is an important success.

by Nathaniel Brodie

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