One of the most striking things I have noticed at Grand Ronde was the use of Chinook Wawa language during a gathering at the Achaf-Hammi Plank House, several days after arriving at Grand Ronde. While I had expected to be introduced to new topics and subjects, language use and its importance to the local community had not really crossed my mind.
Over the following days, I learned about the Confederate of Tribes of Grand Ronde, who include Kalapuya, Molalla, Rogue River Athabaskans,Shasta, and Umpqua peoples and I also learned more about Chinook Wawa, the language that is spoken by Grand Ronde tribal members today. The history of the language is interesting in itself, and it illustrates some of the population’s history, in that it was first used as a trade language between the tribes along the Columbia long before they were forced to move to the reservation in the 1850’s.
In order to communicate the tribes began using an old trade language, a jargon comprised of several dialects. Language, as expected, is intricately linked to culture and traditions of a community, and Chinook Wawa is no different. In the face of the trauma caused by forcible removal, extreme violence, and oppression from their colonizers, the different tribes realized that they needed to band together to survive. A common language was one of the ways in which the tribes came together to form a new normal out of the upheaval (Native-Language, 2015).
As time passed from the tribes to the reservation in 1856 to the current day, the language also experienced changes, and losses. Outside pressure to assimilate to mainstream ‘American’ society made it clear in various ways that assimilation was not only desired, but expected. For some, leaving behind their language, culture and traditions seemed to offer the chance for a brighter future. For the community at large, it was a blow that would take a long time to recover from (Lewis, 2013).
The next challenge to Chinook Wawa and the Confederate Grand Ronde Tribes was with the termination of the tribes in the 1950’s. The termination was one more attempt at forced integration of tribal people, which greatly weakened the community as some members left completely.
It is no surprise that the language also suffered. On speaking to a local tribe member, I learned that there aren’t many adults fluent in Chinook Wawa. Efforts to reintroduce and revitalized the language have proven to be successful, especially with the language program that children of preschool and kindergarten age are enrolled in. This age group has shown a grasp of the language that they carry well past those first few years of schooling, a bright sign for the future of Chinook Wawa as a spoken language.
At present, Chinook Wawa’s presence is heard all over Grand Ronde, from the bilingual street signs on the government campus, to songs, and stories told at the Plank House during gatherings, as well as at the Powwow. Speakers of this unique language have come together in many ways, from making short films like Huyhuy, which went on to show at the ImagineNATIVE festival in Toronto, to a language app that aims to create new avenues for learning the language. My short exposure to the community at Grand Ronde and the cultural events made it clear that the language not only still alive, but an integral part of the traditions, culture, and life of the Grand Ronde Tribes.
photo via Grandronde.org
Hopinka, Sky. 2013. “Huyhuy” https://www.facebook.com/1825697674332803/videos/vb.1825697674332803/1946774372225132/?type=2&theater
Lewis, David G. 2013. “A house built on Cedar Planks.” Willamette Valley Voices: Special Edition Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde Articles.
Native-Languages. 2015. “Grande Ronde Indian Language” Last modified 2015. http://www.native-languages.org/grand-ronde.htm
Rhodes, Dean. 2017. “Veterans’ weekend arrives with summit, powwow” http://www.grandronde.org/news/smoke-signals/2017/06/29/veterans-weekend-arrives-with-summit-powwow/#sthash.HwwjMeyr.dpbs