Tony Johnson: Chinook Wawa, Native vs Non-Native Version

Tony Johnson describes the difference between the Native and non-Native version of Chinook Wawa and the different languages Chinook Wawa is made up of.

Bio: Tony Johnson is the tribal chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, as well as the chair of the tribal cultural committee. He is also the Cultural Education Director for the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe.


The language that I learned or had the good fortune of learning is Chinuk Wawa. The difference is that there really is a native version of that versus a non native version. Now the guys that wrote these really early dictionaries of Chinuk Wawa. They were all undoubtedly really good users of the language is we know it, I mean the native version. They just didn’t have any good means of writing it and didn’t know how to express the sounds, whatever. But I really do believe these early priests–St. Onge, Demers, Blanchet-and guys like George Gibbs who were translators in treaties…James Swan who lived here in the 1850s. They all wrote this language and I’m sure they really did know the language, I mean the same sounds system as we learned it as natives. But then the third time, by the 1880s, 90s, 1900, whatever, that language was…they say a hundred thousand people spoke it. From northern California to southeast Alaska. And no doubt there’s really kind of a diminished or reduced version of it or maybe just more tied to the original pidgin version that didn’t develop in the same way that it was developing for us in our own tribal communities. But regardless the language as I speak it is about 55 percent old Chinook, about 10 percent French, about 10 percent English, and then a whole number of local Indian languages. And a few not so local. So the Hudson’s Bay Company folks, our relatives, that came in and married into our communities, those guys spoke a language called Michif, a lot of them. And that Michif gave words to our Chinuk Wawa language. Not a lot but we got words that came from Hawaii in that language.

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