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Activity 3.1 Video Interview with Tony Johnson 


Tony Johnson, formerly of the Grand Ronde Tribes, now chair of the Chinook Indian Nation, is a linguist and artist who has worked to revive the use of Chinuk Wawa in the Lower Columbia region. In this interview for the Missouri Historical Association, he discusses its use in the early 19th century, his family’s connection to it, and associations with the language of the Nu-cha-nulth on Vancouver Island. From the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition. Lesson Four: New Languages, 2002, length—5:48. (Transcript available below.)

Question for discussion after watching the interview: What are Tony Johnson’s views about the origins of Chinuk Wawa?

Video Transcript – Tony A. Johnson, Chinook (2002)


From the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition.

Lesson Four: New Languages

Download here.


You know Lewis and Clark, when they spent their time at the mouth of the Columbia River, they believed, from my understanding, that they learned the Clatsop language. But they didn’t learn the Clatsop language. No one in a winter can learn that language. They learned Chinuk Wawa, or as people later called it, Chinook Jargon. We call it Chinúk Wáwa or Sháwásh  Wáwa. Shawash Wawa means ‘Indian talk’. It’s the Indian language. And it’s just a language that was used by all the tribes in that area to communicate, and not just for trading. It wasn’t just what Europeans used it for with Indians. Indians used it because there are so many languages on the Coast, that you go just a couple river valleys away, and it’s an unintelligible language. And so it’s this language based on the Chinookan languages of the Columbia River, that because of that being a highway that people had to travel through, mostly for trade, but for all kinds of other reasons: for family alliances, for marriage. People moved through there. And so our language became the basis for this trading language, really a pidgin language or a pidgin creole language. That’s its designation. But the language, that's what Lewis and Clark heard. When they [speaking Chinuk Wawa]

          If you see some strange person, then you go to them and speak Chinuk Wawa to them. You don't speak your old language. You speak Chinuk Wawa. That’s the only language you expect somebody to know that you don't know. And so that's what we spoke to them. They record it. In the little bit of language that they [Lewis and Clark] wrote, they record Chinook Jargon, Chinuk Wawa.

          Chinook wawa, as I know it, is majority old Chinook, Chinookan language, language from the Columbia River like-and that's where it’s like [speaking Chinuk]. Those are words from old Chinook. But then there’s words from English that are very old. They came from, like, the ship-captain days, you know. The trading ship days. That’s where we get our English. It’s words like páya or  lám. Some of it you might recognize, like, oh, well, stik [‘stick’] or sík [‘sick’]. We say those in Chinuk Wawa. Páya means ‘fire’, but it’s become very Indianized. It’s been in the language through Indian mouths for a long time. So it’s become something different than fire. Or lám just means ‘liquor’, because it’s from rum. But also there’s a good percentage that is French. And that’s from mostly French-speaking Indians and some mixed Indians, Metis speakers maybe, that came as employees of Hudson Bay Company.

          I have an ancestor named Urbain Heroux, who’s an Ottawa Indian, who came out with Hudson Bay Company and married a Chinook woman. And in those households, they—you know, those French-speaking Indians and French-speaking men--they married Indians in our country. And so French also gets in the language. But it’s more like French. We still screw it up, I’m sure. But we say things like  t’amánawas- lamatáy. That means ‘spirit mountain’. That’s a mountain in the Grand Ronde community where I work. But lamatsín is ‘medicine’.  laputháy, a bottle. “ Lidú,” that's your ‘finger’. [Speaking in Chinuk Wawa], ‘your mouth’, “ labúsh.” But [speaking Chinook]. We also say the old Chinook words,  siyáxwas, your ‘eyes’. So it’s really a mix.

          It also has west coast of Vancouver Island language in it, which is a very important part of it, which speaks, I’m sure, to its origin in that there’s a very important trade connection between the west coast of Vancouver Island Nu-cha-nulth people and the Columbia River, because that’s where the money came from. We say  alíkhuchik for ‘dentalium shells’. Kúpkup is the little ones and  alíkhuchik is the big really expensive ones. And that comes from Vancouver Island. And this fact that it’s a small percentage of the language but a very important part. You couldn’t use Chinuk Wawa. I couldn’t speak Chinuk Wawa without that part that comes from Nuu-chah-nulth.

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