Mom said that when Grandpa was, my Grandpa, their dad was gone out oystering and gone on business, they all talked in Indian at home. And Mom said she knew what they were saying completely. She said old Indian friends of my grandmother’s came to visit and they were just, the other story I’ve got to tell you. Tutamuka Hyan, jabbering, visiting, gossiping, in the Indian language. And that was how it was lost. They weren’t allowed to speak it in school and in the homes where there was a white parent it wasn’t allowed to be spoken there. – Anna May Strong addressing the loss of Native languages

Language is more than a medium of communication; it is one of the fundamental elements of cultural identity. We obtain our understanding of the world and all its connecting parts through the meaning given to various words.Not all languages have equivalent definitions or lexicons, and thus a language is a unique way of knowing and understanding the world. In this sense, Chinuk Wawa (also called Chinook Jargon) is a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, a world-view that has ties to Indigenous,European, and American worlds.

Chinuk Wawa, was a common language developed for trade with the diverse linguistic indigenous communities of the region. Linguist Henry Zink notes that the Pacific Northwest was one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, a place where neighboring village groups spoke languages as different as Chinese is to French. For these people, Chinuk Wawa was a trade language that incorporated elements of Chinook proper,with other words of neighboring indigenous languages, and also included some French and English after contact.

At one point, Chinuk Wawa was probably one of the most commonly spoken languages in the Pacific Northwest, as Indians, British and French fur traders, and even some American overland emigrants used it as a Lingua Franca (a unifying language) to broker various trade agreements between different linguistic communities. In this sense, Chinuk Wawa is a language that posed to survive the onslaught of colonialism, especially because so many European Americans and mixed racial and tribal people spoke it.European Americans published several Chinook Jargon dictionaries for emigrants on their way out to the Oregon Territories. [1]

The multi-lingual and multi-ethnic background common to many Chinook people has been identified in the literature. For example, Dr. William C. McKay was of Chinook ancestry on his mother’s side and mixed Scotts-Ojibwa on his father’s side. In 1892 McKay gave a celebratory speech in both English and Chinuk Wawa to a crowd in Astoria to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Captain Robert Gray’s landing at Chinook village at the mouth of the Columbia River. [2] A brief article in the Ellensburg Daily Record written in 1921 provides more evidence of the persistent and multi-ethnic character of Chinuk Wawa. The writer notes that“Chinook jargon…is still heard in the northwest when old settlers meet in reunion or at pioneer picnics. [3]

Language loss is a common theme covered by several oral history narrators, many of whom had either experienced or were told of the trauma of being punished for speaking their traditional languages in boarding schools and elsewhere, giving us first hand accounts of the difficult trauma of language loss. But it would be a mistake to focus only on loss. The following narrators also share historic and contemporary experience with speaking and hearing Chinuk WaWa in their homes and at family and tribal gatherings.

Today Chinuk Wawa is being revived as a community language by the Chinook Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon.In spite of historical attempts to erase Indigenous languages, Chinook people,including our narrators, kept the language alive through storytelling and informal usage of select words. The quotes below all have reference to the multi-layered theme of language in Chinook identity. Some experienced tactics to erase the language and many can currently speak some of the language, but they each have specific memories that point to its difficult, but persistent survival.

Personal Stories

Sam Robinson’s experience learning Chinuk Wawa:


But I’d really like to learn a lot more language. I don’t know, I know naika cumtux tonoosh wawa,‘I know just a little wawa.’One of the things that I was kind of happy learning and you know these guys would talk so fast over my head, so I finally said, I said,‘I need to learn something here,’so I said,‘wik naika cumtux mika wawa’ or ‘I don’t know what you said.’[all laugh] I thought that was,that was pretty good. So it sounded like I knew what I was saying but Ididn’t know what they were saying. [laughter] So they had to slow it down, you know, but yeah I would like to learn a lot more.

Chinook Jargon spoken by Joan Wekell’s great-great-grandmother in her very old age:

My grandfather, when [he] first married my grandmother, they were in Westport and he took her down to Ilwaco to meet his family.And so she went into Amanda’s house, who, they were pretty modern and didn’t live in the Indian way too much. And Julia was sitting in the corner. She had a little chair, weaving a basket, and she did beadwork too. […] She was doing her craft and she would not speak English.But I have a hard time believing that that [Jargon] was her first language, because her mother was raised at a fort [Astoria] where they spoke English. Her stepfather, you know, but well it was probably Jargon that they were speaking but–

The woman [at Fort Astoria], McLoughlin’s wife, was Indian, so it might be that she did [speak Jargon]; because usually when they get senile they go back to their original language, but it would seem like her original language would have been English. But anyway, she[Julia] refused to speak English and that’s all she spoke, you know, when she got really old.

Chinook Jargon words used by Joan Wekell’s grandfather to his grandchildren:

They were playful words, I guess,  like muk a muk. I thought that was [laughing] such a funny word for eating. And my grandpa, he used to, when the grandkids were playing and you know, getting rough–I mean he had eight kids so he had lots of grandkids. And we’d be doing something and playing. I was only four when he died, but I do remember this. So we’d be running around and he’d call us skookum muk a muk, which was“strong little devils”or something like that. It’s sort of a fluid word that you could use for–skookum can be strong, it can be mischievous, it can be the devil and, you know. Oh, and skookum muk a muk like“little devils that eat too much,”or [chuckling]something like that….And, oh, sort of words we use now, klahowya and [pause]…[laughs] Well, you know, I never heard my grandfather say that, but that was used as a sort of derogatory term; it was kloochman. A kloochman was a woman but a klooch was someone who went with any guy, you know. [laughing]

Ken Reed on hearing his mother speaking Chinook

… this would have been around 1938. And we were up, actually on the Tahola beach, you know, just walking along enjoying the beach and the driftwood, and this old, old Native lady came carrying, you know, a bundle of firewood on her back. And my mother spoke to her.Now, how they communicated, because the languages are different.But, my mother, you know, greeted her, and the woman straightened up and lightened up and started talking, and they talked back and forth for a very short time.

And what the woman was saying is, ‘It’s so wonderful to hear the language spoken,’ you know, again, because no one speaks it anymore.

But see, my mother would have spoken probably a mixture of Chinook and Chehalis, and she must have spoken Quinault. But they somehow communicated. And yet, it’s my knowledge, it’s very different.For instance, my second brother’s kids, he married a Native from Puyallup, so they’re Puyallup. That language is so much different. You know, we don’t have any words in—they don’t even say hello the same way.

Ken Reed on learning some Chinook in his old age:

I mean he was one of the anthropologists, and found out they had, you know, language at Grand Ronde. So I decided I’d try it. I did it a couple of years. [laughs] None of it stuck. [Sam Reed laughs too] I can say laxayam, kata maika.

I should have started it younger but they had no such thing when I was young. I don’t think anyone spoke the language. I’m just trying to think; although, once again in family, you know we had words.For instance, my youngest uncle, on my mother’s side was named Till; that’s from Tilixam. But see, I learned that Tilixam was friend. That’s not the meaning in the dictionary.

Anna May Strong talks about the suppression of language at home and at school:

Yeah, definitely I know for a fact that Grandpa L.H. Rhoades, of the first three white settlers to Bay Center, he was one of them, that he wanted to get them out of town period. He wanted to get them, he wanted all the Indians to be removed. He didn’t care where as long as it was out of Bay Center and Mom said and Dad said that in school the Indians kids were not allowed to speak their own language in school.They said you speak the white language, the English as we do. So that’s how it was lost and my own then other white grandfather, L.L. Clark,Mom’s father, he wouldn’t allow them to speak their language at home and he said, “you aren’t, you kids aren’t going to talk like them–nasty word–Siwashes in town.” Because if your parents were both Indian, even as young as I was, there was a few, they talked different. They had a different brogue, kind of slow and not fast the way I talk. It was different. And Grandpa Clark said his kids were not going to talk like that. He said,“you speak English.” Well, Grandma didn’t dare, I guess, protest. And apparently she didn’t talk with the Indian brogue too bad or he wouldn’t have married her I wouldn’t have thought. So Mom said that when Grandpa was, my Grandpa, their dad was gone out oystering and gone on business, they all talked in Indian at home. And Mom said she knew what they were saying completely. She said old Indian friends of my grandmother’s came to visit and they were just, the other story I’ve got to tell you. Tutamuka Hyan, jabbering, visiting, gossiping, in the Indian language. And that was how it was lost. They weren’t allowed to speak it in school and in the homes where there was a white parent it wasn’t allowed to be spoken there.

Anna May Strong’s grandfather talking Chinook Wawa with Indian women at the beach:

Oh, I was going to, there’s bits and pieces of the jargon that I know. It was the story that I, the main one that I forgot to tell you the other time was after winter storms, the storms often times hit the bluff, the water and it would loosen and big fir, spruce trees fell off of the bluff and it was the old Indian women who came up the beach and my dad and they lived down on the beach in a cabin or it was a tent house at first until they got the big ranch house built and he said the old Indian women came up the beach Tutamukan hyan which just means jabbering and talking in Chinook and they would strip the great big roots off of the spruce trees and those were the roots they took and made waterproof baskets with. Uh, and they were bare-legged. They didn’t wear boots or shoes or anything. They were bare-legged and the water is cold in the winter when there are storms and stuff but my grandfather would say to them,“Aren’t you cold? How do you feel?” But he was talking Jargon because he knew how to speak it like them.“Don’t your legs get cold?” And they said,“Oh, yes.” Oh, their legs hurt.They had rheumatism and he said, “Of course! You shouldn’t come up the beach bare-legged. You should have stockings and boots on!” Well, they couldn’t be bothered. But I can’t imagine myself walking on the shoreline bare-legged in the winter. I’d probably get pneumonia and die the first time I tried it. But that was how and why they were coming up the beach was to get the spruce roots to make waterproof baskets.

Anna May Strong’s grandfather, Charles Clark, learning Chinook as a small child:

Charles was the first white baby born in Bay Center and he was white and because these Indian women were the one who worked on the bed, Grandpa, Great-grandpa, his dad, took him out with him when he went oystering and he let the Indian women babysit Grandpa Charles and Grandpa Charles would say to us kids, telling us what it was like, he was a spoiled brat because the Indian women spoiled him, pampering him and talking to him in Chinook so he could talk fluent Chinook Jargon and he’d rattle off stuff to us in Chinook which we didn’t pay any attention to because nobody else spoke Chinook because they’d been told that they couldn’t or shouldn’t. Anyway, Grandpa was redheaded and fair complected and he would say they would hold him and rock him and then he would say the Chinook words I wish I could remember. So there it was and time progressed.

Anna May talks about Chinook phrases in everyday life

Oh, there was other words, simple words. There’s another one: aday a ha. And yet another one was, um, my senile brain is kicking in.

KB: What does aday a ha mean?

AS: It’s something that you’ve told me that I can’t quite believe it and so it means “really? Is that a fact?” What is that other one that I was thinking about so much before you came? Well, to side track, when the kids were little and they are not really potty trained yet, well, if they had an accident, the Indian word was, um, I can’t remember that one either. It means translated it means “stink pants” [laughs]. And my Eddie and Vernon, Grandpa and Grandma would say that to them if they had an accident and they hated that, being told that they had stink pants[laughs]. Mom and them would be talking about this old Indian lady, she’d go blackberry picking and it’s easy to get lost if you’re out in the brush and you can lose each other easy. Well, she lost her partner and she said, “Yukka hala, yukka hala, halo answer.” He didn’t hear her.He was far away I guess. And that’s just some of the little excerpts that they would talk about because all of us, if we went out as a family group, we’d get lost from each other so we’d go into this “yukka hala” thing.

KB: So you used those phrases too.

AS: Huh?

KB: You used those phrases too.

AS: Yeah, but not anymore because I’m not out picking blackberries. There was another one. My brother and I were at a funeral for a classmate that had passed away up at Fernhill and just as the minister was through and everyone could leave, it just started pouring rain and we made it as fast as we could to Vernon’s–Vernon’s!–Carlton’s SUV and I said, “lucky chunis you’re parked so close.” Well, that’s another expression that was used a lot, lucky chunis. But Carlton and I don’t know where it came from. It means, lucky we were parked that close and didn’t have to get soaking wet going to the car. Upuch, upuch [O’-poots~, or ~O’-pootsh, Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon,George Gibbs,] is your bottom. Seems like there was some other. I can’t even see what I’ve written because it’s dark, to me.My vision is very poor anyway. There must be other questions you guys got to ask.

KB: Well, Donna has one.

DS: You mentioned that there were some kids who had both Indian parents and who spoke the Chinook Jargon when you were younger?

AS: If they were both Indian, I know that they spoke it with their own immediate family.

DS: Who did you know at the time?

AS: No, because that would usually be at their home, their own house and surroundings. I don’t remember any of the Indian kids and there were quite a few in school that we were with. I don’t remember, they weren’t supposed to so they didn’t. I didn’t hear them out in the schoolyard or anything but I was talking to the Hispanic kids that I knew. They live on our old farm now and I said, “can you speak Spanish in school?” And they said, “no, we were told to speak English when we were at school.” And so I told them the story of how the Chinook language was lost locally. I said, “if the teachers aren’t around, you speak Spanish, if you’re used to doing that.