Chinuk Wawa – reviving an endangered Indigenous language

St. Paul and Family. Kamloops, most celebrated… | Photo courtesy of BC Archives

The precise number of languages spoken on this planet is not really known. For a variety of reasons, some may become endangered, and finally lost. Some examples of lost languages are Latin, Sanskrit, Coptic (the language of the Egyptians) and Sumerian. The main reasons they are no longer spoken is that their native speakers are long lost, and the languages are too old to revive.

On the other hand, some languages that seemed to be dying out have been successfully revived. One such language that was, in a sense, brought back from the dead is Chinuk Wawa. Chinuk Wawa is a pidgin language developed around British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest in the nineteenth century, and commonly spoken in British Columbia’s mills and canneries.

Before talking about a language, one must know the people who spoke it.

The Chinookan people are indigenous to the land along the Columbia river, in modern day Oregon. Historically elk hunters and fishermen, the language they spoke is the Chinuk Jargon or Chinuk Wawa – ‘wawa’ meaning talk.

With an estimated number of 100,000 speakers in 1875, the language is an amalgam of various Indigenous tongues like Nuu-chah-nulth, English, and French. The spread of Chinuk Wawa boomed between 1858 and 1865, during the Fraser Canyon and Cariboo gold rushes. Early Chinese migrants are said to have learned this language to communicate better with the locals of BC.

However, it saw a steep decline in the late nineteenth century. This was mainly due to an influx of English-speaking residents and the establishment of residential schools that prevented people using their Indigenous languages, causing it to become the endangered language it is today.

Chinuk Wawa was declared an extinct language in the early 2000s, but it has a chance at revival, thanks to the existence of 650 native speakers, according to a 2010 US Census.

Revival of the language

In 2014, it was revived on a public scale with the release of Chinuk Wawa – As Our Elders Teach Us to Speak It, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. This group currently consists of 5,400 members of 30 different Indigenous tribes. The release of Chinuk Wawa – As Our Elders Teach Us to Speak It inspired a small outpouring of art, books, and videos, capturing the essence of the language and its people.

Vancouver plays a fairly important role in the revival of the language. It is home to the art installation Welcome to the Land of Light by Henry Tsang that features Chinuk Jargon.

Sky Hopinka and Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

Sky Hopinka, director of the film Małni, meaning towards the ocean, towards the water. | Photo courtesy ofky Hopinka

Vancouver is also home to Sky Hopinka, director of a short film that predominantly plays in Chinuk Jargon. Hopinka directed Małni, meaning towards the ocean, towards the water which is showing at this year’s Doxa Documentary Film Festival

Hopinka, a filmmaker, author and artist who has had his art installed all over the world, is also currently an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. His main intention behind creating the documentary Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore was to center it around Indigenous experience and forms of representation while still exploring the “relationships between myths, the language and the movements around death, reincarnation and the afterlife.”

Małni, pronounced moth-nee, follows two individuals. “Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier’s wanderings through each of their worlds as they wander through and contemplate the afterlife, rebirth, and the place in-between,” says Hopinka.

Hopinka chose to make a film that focuses on the element of water because of its importance in the Chinuk community.

“The water means a lot of different things and has many different significations,” he explains. In Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, he chooses to use the ocean as the center and boundary between this world and the spirit world. Hopinka believes that by recognizing that the language has not been forgotten and by reminding ourselves that there are people who speak it, care about it, and teach it, we can help revive it.

With community members like Hopinka actively promoting Chinuk Wawa’s revitalization and preservation, the language may see a better future.

For more information about the movie Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, please visit www.doxafestival.ca.

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