2014: The first document to call Chinuk Wawa a Métis language?

Giving credit where it’s due.


George Goulet carrying the Métis flag (image credit: Wikipedia)

“Chinook Jargon — A Métis Trade Language of the Pacific Northwest” by George and Terry Goulet is a 2014 article for popular audiences. I’m not sure if it was published in a magazine, but it’s easily downloaded from the internet. I always give thanks for anyone who puts the Jargon in front of the public! 

I’m pleased to see that someone, especially as respected a scholar and community member as George Goulet, was already explicitly associating the Jargon with Métis people 8 years ago. I can tell you that I didn’t reach that point until about 2020…

The message is kind of confused, though, in the Goulet’s article. They claim that “a common language called Chinook” was invented by PNW Indigenous tribes prior to contact with European-based civilization. The authors’ idea is that the Métis and White fur traders, who arrived circa 1800 in this region, then “developed an offshoot of the Native Chinook language[,] that was called Chinook Jargon.” Contrast is also drawn between CJ & whatever pidgin was already in use at the mouth of the Columbia River and on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. 

My research has indicated that there’s no evidence for a pre-European-contact pidgin/creole/trade language in the Pacific Northwest; the Goulets are confusing the Chinookan tribal languages, which of course have existed since time immemorial, with CJ (Chinuk Wawa). Contrary to the authors’ wording, Chinookan was famous as a language spoken only by the Chinookans — outsiders couldn’t seem to grasp it. And for sure the Chinookans didn’t “invent” their own language, any more than you and I and our kinfolks “invented” English. 

Another detail that my research has clarified is that the newly arrived overland fur-trade workers actually capitalized on the already existing maritime fur-trade pidgin (1794+) at the mouth of the Columbia River. That pidgin was in fact a development of the Vancouver Island “Nootka Jargon”. It formed the nucleus of Chinook Jargon, which developed into a distinct language of its own. 

The Métis influence that’s so powerfully visible in Chinook Jargon, for example through the numerous Canadian French, Cree, and Ojibwe words in CJ, did not however take shape until Fort Vancouver’s founding (1825+, on the Columbia River in modern Washington state). Let me state the reason for this, in a way that’s kind of different from my previous writing about the subject. Chinuk Wawa could have been a Métis language as early as 1811 or so, if Métis people had been a more central part of the CW speech community that early. But to coin a phrase, you don’t have Métis people without intermarriage. It took a decade and more until there were sufficiently numerous Métis men out here, marrying PNW Indigenous women, and raising PNW Métis kids in households clustered in a single locale. Dozens such Métis families lived in the Fort Vancouver environs, numerically and culturally dominating the scene for a generation or more — with the result that now Métis French, and possibly Cree-French Michif, speech exerted a huge influence on the speaking of Chinook Jargon. 

(I’ve recently written about the demonstrable connection between Red River Métis individuals and the Chinook Jargon heartland.) 

I shouldn’t go much farther into these details, because the Goulets’ article isn’t intended as any kind of detailed proof that Chinuk Wawa is a Métis language. Really they just assert the connection, and then move on to a fairly lightweight survey of CW’s role in our history, and traces of it in the present day PNW. 

A tip of the hat to them for raising some consciousness about the presence of Métis people and about this important language!

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?