Chinook Wawa: Preserving a Language

Book cover of “Chinuk Wawa: As our elders teach us to speak it.”

On March 6, 2022, Oregon Public Broadcasting posted an article titled “Linguists and an Oregon family work together to preserve an Indigenous language.” It’s a heart-warming read about the preservation of the Kalapyua language, a language where the last ‘first language’ speaker of it passed away in 1971. What’s then heartbreaking is the fact that at one point in history over three hundred languages were spoken across the modern-day United States and now many of those have now been completely lost. Locally to us there is an ongoing effort to keep what’s called Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Wawa, shawash-wawa, or simply jargon by some) alive and strong, a language that is  important culturally and has direct historical tie-ins to the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River.

If you’ve ever travelled overseas, you may have run into a situation of finding yourself somewhere where you didn’t know the local language, but still needed to buy supplies for your trip. For many years before Lewis and Clark’s arrival here on the coast fur traders had stopped at the mouth of the Columbia River to barter for sea otter and other fur pelts. With no mutual language shared between either group, trading was difficult; left to interpretation, sign language, and body language. However, as groups interacted more, Chinuk Wawa would be born. It’s known originally as a Pidgin, a language used to communicate, but not a first language for any individual, although later it would become a staple of many bilingual individuals. The language solidified itself as a combination of  55% Original Chinook, 7% Nuu-chaa-nulth, 10% English, 10% French, and 18% other.

Today the language is being actively practiced, supported, and taught by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a federally recognized group that consists of over 30 Tribes and bands ranging from northern California to southwest Washington including the Chinook. They have published numerous educational materials, curriculum, audio and video recordings, and books on the subject including a complete dictionary. This material and more was used in partnership with Lane Community College to begin an entire course series on learning Chinuk Wawa, where over 70 students have mastered it to meet the graduation requirements of the Oregon University System.

You don’t need to plan to go back to college to broaden your horizons and commit to learning a new (old) language. As mentioned above, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has been publishing a variety of material to help you succeed. You can visit their website directly at  to read more about the history of Chinuk Wawa and see it in use. If you have a smartphone, either Apple or Android, they have recently created an app for Chinuk Wawa that can be a great place to start your journey. It’s free to install and includes a dictionary of common phrases and words combined with pictures that help to demonstrate the meaning behind them. It also includes many of the published pieces of audio and visual images to help listen to the language being spoke, and a collection of photographs of historical places and people. When you’re ready to put your skills to the test it even features quizzes that review the included words and phrases. Download the app off Google Play or the Apple App store by searching “Chinuk Wawa.”

At the Fort Clatsop Bookstore you can also find some of the other resources for learning this language, including the Chinuk Wawa Dictionary, and the Learners Booklet with audio CDs. Both tools are available at the store located in the Visitor Center, or online at

At Fort Clatsop we are dedicated to the preservation of history and culture, but it is not something we can do alone. To keep a language alive there must be more than just plaques on a wall in a museum, there must be real people like you actively speaking the language. We often preface our events and meetings here at the Fort with a land acknowledgment, a statement recognizing the land our National Park is on is the ancestral homeland of the Clatsop and Chinook. It is important to acknowledge, but better to engage, to help, and to make sure that the language, and all of those who have used it from past to present, are remembered.