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Can We Still Speak Chinook?

A language 'thrown together to make a strange new country.'

By Nicholas Klassen 10 Jan 2006 |

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At her swearing-in as lieutenant governor in 2001, Iona Campagnolo concluded her remarks with a curious line that few, if anyone in attendance, would have understood: "konoway tillicums klatawa kunamokst klaska mamook okoke huloima chee illahie" - Chinook for "everyone was thrown together to make this strange new country."

Campagnolo's nod to BC's lost tongue reflects the importance she places on honouring aboriginal contributions to BC history, and her efforts seem to have rubbed off on Premier Gordon Campbell. At the recent First Ministers' Aboriginal Summit in Kelowna, the premier stressed the need for dialogue and the formulation of a "new working relationship aimed at ensuring Canada's third solitude is henceforth recognized as a true founding partner in confederation." It's impressive stuff, given his track record.

But while Campbell's intention is commendable, Campagnolo's image of everyone being "thrown together" is perhaps a more constructive metaphor than the rhetoric of solitudes.

And as a language, or jargon, that all BCers can take ownership of, Chinook holds important lessons in seeing past our divisions and moving forward.

Bridge of words

Campagnolo's citation was culled from Terry Glavin's lengthy Chinook/English poem "Rain Language," which is included in A voice great within us, Glavin's exploration into Chinook he co-wrote with Charles Lillard. For Glavin, the legacy of the language remains important today "because it challenges the narrative that starts with the proposition: 'white good, native bad.' The story of Chinook defies that narrative. It defies the conventions of European settlement in a place that experienced the last colonial enterprise on the continent."

Chinook served as a tangible bridge between all groups -whether aboriginal, European, Chinese, Japanese, even Hawaiian - and as a foundation for a syncretic culture where no one identity had to be dominant. Carryl Coles, whose Neskonlith forebears in the Shuswap region spoke Chinook, sees how the jargon would have connected cultures: "Language is an obvious barrier for communication and Chinook seems to have brought different people together. So there's a lesson in that."

Chinook's roots lie in the enormous linguistic diversity of North America's northwest coast. Penned in by mountains and ocean, with an abundant food supply, the indigenous population was a relatively sedentary crowd. Dozens of languages evolved in isolated valleys and inlets, so the people developed a common tongue in order to trade. Marianne Ignace - who teaches aboriginal language and curriculum in the Secwepemc Nation surrounding Kamloops - emphasizes this point because "until recently, the literature classified Chinook as a trade language introduced by white people. So it's important to set the record straight. This was an international language aboriginal people developed among themselves that gained a new element with the arrival of Europeans."

News in Chinook

Through the fur trade, French, English and Cree words entered the language. Missionaries added their contributions, and eventually Chinook became the lingua franca for as many as 250,000 people along the Pacific Slope from Alaska to Oregon.

Glavin reflects that "Chinook was the language of Vancouver before the fire. With it, we wrote poetry, we offered up our prayers, we had a newspaper. It wasn't just a tool for trading. It was the identity of a people." Government officials sometimes conducted criminal trials and commissions of inquiry in Chinook. A French missionary published the Chinook-language Kamloops Wawa - which advertised itself as "the queerest newspaper in the world" - out of the back room of a church on a Kamloops reserve between 1891 and 1923.

Old copies of the Wawa provide an invaluable window into the world of Chinook for modern fans of the language like University of Victoria linguist David Robertson. Robertson notes that Chinook facilitated native-newcomer relations in nineteenth-century BC because new arrivals could pick it up with less difficulty than a pure indigenous language. But he's careful not to romanticize it. "Some folks like to paint a picture of settler and native arm-in-arm having a rollicking good time on the frontier. And while that wasn't the case, everyone did know from the start that Chinook was not the white man's language. That was an important point."

What's a Tyee?

According to Robertson, Chinook is best described as a reduced and simplified version of the ancestral languages that were members of the Chinookan family. This is the root of words like iht "one" and tillicum "friend/people." There is also a small group of frequently used words from Nuuchahnulth like mamuk "to do/make" and tyee "chief, or something of superior order."

A few decades after initial contact, Chinook suddenly absorbed large amounts of words from French like labush "mouth" and lametsin, "medicine." For the rest of its history, the language of the English newcomers - referred to as King George men, or Kinchotsh - became the single predominant linguistic influence on the jargon. This created some delightful hybrids: chuck is water, so salt chuck is the ocean. Ollallie means berries, so, hen ollallie means eggs. Kapswalla is to steal, so a kapswall man is a thief. Arguably the most recognizable Chinook word - one of the few still commonly in use - is skookum, which can mean swift, strong, well-made, first rate, or cool, but with a tough edge.

Although today these words rarely pass from our lips, they still pepper the landscape. Like ghosts walking out of nowhere, Chinook words can be found from the churning waters of Sechelt Inlet's Skookumchuck narrows, to the town of that same name in the Rocky Mountain trench.

In addition to the name of this news site, you'll find Tyee Creek, Tyee Butte, Tyee Lake, Tyee Glacier. Cultus Lakes abound - though it's an ominous moniker given that cultus means worthless or good-for-nothing. And how many people driving through the Fraser Canyon's Boston Bar are aware that the Boston is actually Chinook for "American," a term that came about because most American boats that came to these parts were based out of Boston?

Faded tongue

While Chinook flourished from roughly 1858 to 1900, it hit a wall in the twentieth century. World War I, the Spanish flu and residential schools decimated and disrupted the population. Mass migration into the subsequent void from out-of-province diluted the number of Chinook speakers. All the while, judges, the police, politicians, newspaper editors and the mercantile class made a concerted effort to construct an identity of Anglo hegemony. Chinook was driven to the margins, though it kept peeking up in logging camps and fishing outports.

Still, even many of those who clung to it failed to appreciate where Chinook came from. In A voice great within us, Lillard tells a story of picking up a hitchhiker near Kamloops in the 1960s and being taken aback when the young man greeted him with "Klahowya," Chinook for "hello." The young man shrugged when Lillard asked him how he came to use the greeting; it was simply a term his father had always used. When Lillard explained its roots, that it was in large part an expression BC's aboriginal heritage, the passenger had to chuckle, "[my dad] hates Indians. Wait until I tell him where the word comes from. He's gonna shake like a dog shitting peach pits."

Although these attitudes still exist in BC, we can honestly say we've come a long way since then. And a fuller appreciation of the history of Chinook can bring BCers closer, still. For some enthusiasts, that means trying to learn the language anew. More realistically, others simply want to raise awareness.

Coles is inspired by the interest in Chinook on the Grand Ronde reservation in Oregon - where the language is still actively spoken - and would love to have a gathering of Chinook aficionados in her area. She still recalls the first time she came across a copy of the Wawa. "I was blown away, and immediately wanted to know if anyone was doing anything with Chinook anymore. It's such a great way to get in touch with our past."

That past was not without its divides, but when BC was Chinook territory, it was a more multi-ethnic, multi-lingual place than most BCers realize. Indeed, our Chinook era, like today, was a time when we were all thrown together to make a strange new country.

Nesika mamook chee oakut wawa, We made a new way to speak

Tamahnous oakut mitlite wawa, A magic way to speak,

Skookum oakut, nesika oakut A strong way, our own way.

- Rain Language

Nicholas Klassen is a Vancouver-based writer.  [Tyee]

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