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Lin­guist David Robertson was push­ing his ba­bies in a stroller — the sub­stan­tial sort that con­verts to a bike trailer — when he en­coun­tered one of his favourite ex­am­ples of present-day Chi­nook Jar­gon us­age. “Some ran­dom neigh­bour­hood fella saw me with my con­vert­ible rig,” Robertson says. “(And) he just out of the blue hollers at me, ‘Skookum stroller, eh!’ ”

Skookum means big, reli­able or strong in Chi­nook Jar­gon (a.k.a. Chin­úk Wawa). And while this ex­change took place on the streets of Victoria, you can still find ev­i­dence of the Jar­gon through­out Bri­tish Columbia — if you know where to look, that is.

Once a vi­tally im­por­tant trade lan­guage in the Pa­cific North­west, you’re in­fin­itely more likely to see it in the names of places — Skookum­chuck (“strong”“wa­ter”) Nar­rows, Cul­tus (“bad, worth­less”) Lake, Tyee (“boss, chief”) Spit — than in ev­ery­day par­lance to­day. Chi­nook Jar­gon arose out of a sud­den and im­me­di­ate need for com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween dis­parate groups in the 19th cen­tury. It was col­lo­quial, its vo­cab­u­lary de­rived pri­mar­ily from the Chi­nook and Che­halis In­dige­nous lan­guages, English, French (par­tic­u­larly Métis French) and Nootka Jar­gon.

“It’s a shared lan­guage,” says Robertson, who wrote the world’s first gram­mar of Chi­nook Jar­gon while com­plet­ing his PhD at the Uni­ver­sity of Victoria. “So that’s a unique fea­ture for any of Canada’s cul­tural traits. There’s some­thing quite in­spir­ing about the fact that it’s a co-cre­ation.”

In B.C. alone, there are more than 30 In­dige­nous lan­guages be­long­ing to seven dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies, au­thor Bob Joseph says. “And those lan­guage fam­i­lies are as dif­fer­ent as Span­ish is to Ja­panese. So Chi­nook (Jar­gon) re­ally was there by ne­ces­sity. The abil­ity to move up and down the coast and up into big rivers and even into other prov­inces, as we un­der­stand it to­day, would be made pos­si­ble by Chi­nook Jar­gon.”

The ear­li­est records of the Jar­gon sug­gest it orig­i­nated near the mouth of the Columbia River, which spans the U.S. states of Ore­gon and Washington. But it was in B.C. — in the midst of two gold rushes (185863) — that the num­ber of Chi­nook Jar­gon speak­ers boomed with the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. By 1875, it had de­vel­oped from a pid­gin (a sim­pli­fied means of ex­pres­sion) to a full-fledged lan­guage that was spo­ken by an es­ti­mated 100,000 peo­ple.

Its writ­ing sys­tem, Chinuk pipa (Chi­nook writ­ing), emerged in the 1890s as a vari­ant of a French lan­guage short­hand sys­tem, Robertson says: “This unique al­pha­bet was just about ex­clu­sively used to write Chi­nook Jar­gon.” There was a pop­u­lar news­pa­per pub­lished in Chinuk pipa — Kam­loops Wawa (“wawa” mean­ing “talk”) — and Bri­tish Columbians widely used the writ­ing sys- tem in cor­re­spon­dence and even on grave mark­ers.

“There were hun­dreds of pages, thou­sands even, of peo­ple writ­ing in this pid­gin that vi­o­lated ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion that we have of these be­ing ephemeral lan­guages that no­body val­ues very highly,” Robertson says. “What we find with these writ­ten doc­u­ments is that peo­ple val­ued the lan­guage so much that it was their main chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion out­side of face-to-face con­tact.”

In much of the prov­ince, us­age re­mained strong through the 1920s un­til a shift in eco­nomics spurred its rapid de­cline. The Jar­gon had been heav­ily as­so­ci­ated with cer­tain in­dus­tries — ranch­ing and re­source ex­trac­tion, in­clud­ing min­ing and forestry — but was no longer needed when English dis­placed it as the shared lan­guage.

With the rail­way came a surge in English set­tlers. As Joseph wrote in a blog post: “The ad­vent of the rail­road dra­mat­i­cally changed the way goods and peo­ple moved. The rail­way brought more English-speak­ing set­tlers to the North­west which re­sulted in Aboriginal peo­ple hav­ing to learn English to sur­vive rather than the other way round. The as­sim­i­la­tion pol­icy fur­ther shut down us­age of the lan­guage, and those who con­tin­ued to use it were shunned.”

A mem­ber of the Gwawaenuk Na­tion, Joseph says that Chi­nook Jar­gon still “finds its way in Kwak­waka’wakw cul­ture” to­day. Terms such as pot­latch (to give) and skookum are com­monly used in Kwak’wala (the In­dige­nous lan­guage spo­ken by the Kwak­waka’wakw) as they are in English. Grow­ing up in Camp­bell River, his best friend’s dad had a “chuck (wa­ter) char­iot” that they would bor­row to go salmon fish­ing. The flat-bot­tomed fi­bre­glass boat with a Vhull “earned the nick­name ‘chuck char­iot’ be­cause it was just so strong and fierce.”

Other than in place names and a hand­ful of com­monly used loan­words, knowl­edge of Chi­nook Jar­gon has all but faded away in B.C., Robertson laments.

The cur­rent cen­tre of Chi­nook Jar­gon use is south of the bor­der, in Grand Ronde, Ore­gon, where a lan­guage re­vi­tal­iza­tion pro­gram has suc­cess­fully cre­ated new speak­ers by the hun­dreds.

“It would be great to see a course in schools learn­ing a lo­cal lan­guage and maybe a lit­tle bit of Chi­nook Jar­gon in the (kinder­garten to grade 12) sys­tem. I think those would be very rec­on­cil­ia­tory ac­tions that would fit a call to ac­tion for the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion,” Joseph says.

“I al­ways tell peo­ple, if you want to meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, go visit the seven major lan­guage fam­i­lies here in Bri­tish Columbia and see how they look at the world. That’s the neat part: Whether it’s Chi­nook (Jar­gon) or In­dige­nous lan­guages in gen­eral, the view­points that they have (are seen) in how they talk about things.”

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