RONDE RESERVATION, Ore. - (KRT) - 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.
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.
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.
has been "vital to the language having any future," said
Portland linguist Henry Zenk, with whom Johnson created a written
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
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.
the Grand Ronde program is so successful, he said, children here
use Chinuk-wawa to keep secrets from adults.
they don't want parents to hear about something, they switch over,"
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.
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.
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 identity."
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.
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).
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.
lucrative Spirit Mountain Casino, on the Grand Ronde Reservation,
makes the language program affordable.
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.
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."
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.
lose one's language is to lose one's culture, Johnson said.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
was the language used when someone courted their mate, when someone
went to the post office, when someone went to the sweat lodge,"
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.
the simple greeting, "How are you?" is more a question
of the condition of your spirit than a casual inquiry.
grew up with his parents and a brother in a two-story house in Raymond,
off the reservation.
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.
his grandmother called him when he was a toddler. "Stinky pants."
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.
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.
pleases me so much to hear the voice of our elders in our children."
day, he and Sammy go to the reservation's Twah Sunchako preschool
- Chinook jargon for "A Bright Day is Coming."
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.
room was filled with signs identifying common classroom objects
- clock, drum and fish in the aquarium - as tiktik, pumpum and phish.
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.
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
and Sammy share the language in daily rituals of their own.
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
qat mayka, papa," he says.
qat mayka, Sammy," Johnson replies.
of Chinuk-wawa words and phrases:
Chinuk-wawa, capital letters are sometimes found in the middle or
at the end of words. Exact pronunciations are sometimes difficult
to duplicate with the English alphabet.
or nuts of any kind
(literally, fire wagon)
friend or family