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Chinook Jargon and a Metaphor for an Inclusive British Columbia

Nicholas Klassen reflects on Chinook Jargon in today. Chinook Jargon is a trade language used along the Pacific Coast and well into the interior of western North America to facilitate communication and trade between groups of people who otherwise spoke different languages.

Klassen’s discussion emphasizes how Chinook Jargon was used by speakers to create unity within British Columbia. With the shared code, such unity existed both between First Nations groups and between native and non-native peoples. Klassen writes:

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

For many aboriginal people, Chinook Jargon was one of a number of linguistic codes they held in their linguistic repertoires. Klassen discusses some of this history, often citing Charles Lillard and Terry Glavin’s A Voice Great Within Us. He discusses the processes that led to the decline in use of Chinook Jargon and uses it as a reminder of the past and current cultural and linguistic diversity of the province.

One warning though … Chinook Jargon (the focus of the article) and the Chinook language (spoken in the Lower Columbia River area of Oregon and Washington States) are different. Chinook Jargon is a pidgin which uses, in part, vocabulary of the Chinook language and has a limited grammatical structure. The article, at times, makes it sound like the Chinook language was used throughout British Columbia.

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  1. Tad, I found your good note via Google Alerts. You’ve been crawled.

    I’d like to point out, as one who was interviewed for the article, that it was the author who postulated Chinook Jargon as a unifying force in BC.

    My own view was and is that despite its allowing Natives & Newcomers to communicate with one another, CJ was always looked down upon as both a pidgin and an ‘Indian’ language by Newcomers, who however fluent some may have been in Jargon, consistently valued English more highly.

    Native people tended to valuate CJ much more positively, as the language was demonstrably constructed on a Native model (phonologically, lexically, syntactically, semantically, etc.), clearly neither was ‘White’ nor bore the inherent limitation of deriving from a single Native ethnic group’s heritage, and overall made easier the unification of Native people against the eventual hegemony of the Newcomers.

    Native people were, I argue (and teach), in fact the stewards of Chinook Jargon. They maintained the standards of its proper use, generated and preserved a wide array of their own cultural expression in this language. What may be the most convincing support for my claim (on Newcomer terms) is that BC Native people took Jargon seriously enough that their first literacy was in this language, in an alphabet unique to Jargon, while English-speaking Newcomers jeered them for their efforts.

    I agree that Chinook Jargon constituted a unique symbol of post-contact Northwest (not just BC!) culture, but am at pains to specify that this language was only relatively superficially a unifying force between Natives and Newcomers. That honour is more appropriately ascribed to English.

    Friday, January 13, 2006 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Dave … thanks for the additional information and taking time to write. I remember your paper from Ethnohistory in Chicago … and quite enjoyed that and others in your session … and recognize your authority and expertise on this topic.

    I appreciate greatly the idea that native people were stewards of Chinook Jargon. I suppose that comes in large part from the value it had in the lives of so many of them and because, as you say, it was their own. To paraphrase you, then, the unity CJ created was more within the aboriginal community (broadly constituted) and less so for all peoples living in BC?

    Friday, January 13, 2006 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  3. Terry Glavin wrote:

    Hi Ted and Dave.

    I won’t pretend the competence to comment on whether lelang was more of a unifying force among aboriginal peoples than it was between aboriginal peoples and settler cultures.

    There’s is much evidence I can see for the former case – one of my favorite stories during the time I spent working on a book with the Xenigwetin Tsilqotin was the epochal event of a truce festival in the Snow Mountains with the Secwepemc and Stlatlimx, as I recall, which was facilitated by lelang. Horse races, wrestling matches, slahal tournaments. . .

    But at the same time, I think it would be a mistake to understimate the significance of the role lelang played north of the 49th among and between aboriginal people and “newcomers” in the cannery culture, in Bictoli and Koonspa (Victoria and New Westminster), in innumerable formal and informal parlays between Crown representatives and tribal leaders, and on and on. I am quite surprised to read here that settler culture “jeered” at the aboriginal use of Duployan script. I recall reading instances of high praise from immigrant observers about the extent to which Duployan was embraced by aboriginal people in the southern Interior, for instance.

    I suspect that what might be clear and plain about these things south of the 49th is less so in British Columbia, especially before Trutch, where the creation of a new “colonial” society was rather more of a joint enterprise between aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people, facilitated in no small part by lelang.

    All the best to you both.


    Friday, January 20, 2006 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  4. Thanks for your input Terry … your observations seem more than reasonable. The pre and post-Trutch distinction makes good sense to me and we might consider too pre-gold 1858 rush populations favoured native people enough that a lingua franca allowing for settlers-native communication would have been useful. It points to interesting possibilities in language contact situations particularly where power relations dynamics are concerned … notably that English did not swiftly overwhelm aboriginal communities.

    Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 3:34 pm | Permalink