And speaking of Chinuk Wawa…

Jan 23, 2014 | 0 comments

Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia

“Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia”

Before we left for our Community Historian class at the Heritage Museum yesterday morning, Nyel reminded me to take Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia (copyright 2013 University of Washington Press) for Tony Johnson’s signature.  Johnson, one of the book’s three authors and the Chairman of the Chinook Tribe Cultural Committee, was to be our speaker of the day and this seemed the perfect opportunity to get him to sign.

It also was a perfect opportunity to get a copy of Chinuk Wawa (copyright 2012 by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) at the Museum bookstore, which I did on the way to class, and have him sign that, too.  As explained on the back of the hefty volume:  Chinuk Wawa (also known as Jargon and Chinook Jargon) is a hybrid lingua franca consisting of simplified Chinookan combined with contributions from Nuuchahnulth (Nootkan), Canadian French, English and other languages.  It originated on the lower Columbia River… It is the culmination of the Chinuk Wawa Dictionary Project which involved years of work by many people.  Tony Johnson was the Project Coordinator.

Chinuk Wawa

“Chinuk Wawa”

Shortly before class began I handed the books to Mr. Johnson and asked if he would give me his autograph.  “Do you want me to say anything in particular?” he asked.  “No – whatever you like.  Sydney is spelled with a ‘y’ like Australia… You could say what a wonderful person I am,” and we both laughed.

He began his talk, fittingly, with quite a long monologue in Chinuk Wawa.  Although he didn’t give a translation of what he said, I assume it was a speech of welcome and perhaps an introduction of himself.  Immediately afterwards he asked the group if we would like to hear one of the Chinuk paddle songs accompanied by the drum he held in his hands.   Enthusiastic agreement!

The next two hours sped by Mr. Johnson spoke (in English) on the subject of the day:  “Chinookan Culture and the Role of First-Person Oral Traditions in Native Cultures.”  I was much too engrossed to take any notes; Nyel took a few.  One of the most enlightening things he said was that when James Swan lived here on Shoalwater Bay from 1852 to 1855, he lived with an Indian woman.

Inscription by Tony Johnson

From Tony Johnson

That fact has come down in the Chinookan oral tradition from several sources but, as Johnson pointed out, Swan never indicated his domestic arrangement in his diaries or in his 1857 book, The Northwest Coast or Three Years on Shoalwater Bay.  However, that knowledge goes a long way toward explaining Swan’s meticulous descriptions of the details of Chinook tribal life at that time.

Johnson actually shared that bit of information as an aside,  referring back to our pre-lecture discussion of our “homework” assignment which is to read (or for many of us to re-read) Swan’s book, two chapters each week.  I will be looking at Swan with new eyes now, thanks to that bit of enlightenment.

At the break, I picked up my two books from the front table and, of course, turned immediately to see the inscriptions.  Imagine my amazement and delight to find that they were written in Chinuk Wawa!  I haven’t a clue what they say!

After class, Mr. Johnson called over to me, “I’ll have to translate what I wrote sometime!”  And, again, we both laughed.


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