Can You Speak British Columbian?

Chinook Wawa is linked with the history of British Columbia.

Chinook Wawa is linked with the history of British Columbia. We might even call one form of it British Columbian.

James Cook and his midshipman George Vancouver sojourned at Nootka Sound. Their Nuuchahnulth word lists became a Nootka Jargon that spread through the Maritime Fur Trade.

Supported by Chief Concomly and the Chinook Nation, Fort George became the Canadian depot for Columbia furs. French-speaking traders married into Chinook families and learned a Broken Chinook.

Proto-British Columbia

Britain granted governmental powers to the Hudson Bay Company, although First Nations remained sovereign. Vancouver became the capital of Columbia, or proto British Columbia. Governor John McLoughlin’s son married the daughter of Chief Concomly.

It may have been after the move to Vancouver that Broken Chinook, Nootka Jargon, French and other languages combined to form Chinook Wawa. No one had described or named the new language at Fort George.

The first record of Wawa was among the mixed race families of Vancouver. Their schoolteacher made the earliest wordlist; Sunday School was conducted in Wawa. The Governor, his officers and workers used it among the thirty-five ethnic groups in multicultural Vancouver.

Priests reached Vancouver and compiled the first dictionary. They noted the fathers spoke French, but mothers and children spoke only Wawa. And people who came to Vancouver for trade spread it widely. Aboriginal eyewitnesses confirmed the language arose from the Hudson Bay Company milieu.

The 1849 Border Treaty shocked all; it gave away Columbia to the United States.

Governor James Douglas led a caravan to his new capital, Victoria

Governor James Douglas led a caravan to his new capital Victoria.

The US waged a dozen wars against native people, annulled their mixed marriages and banned black and Hawaiian people.

Many went north and established a new Vancouver and a new Columbia, British Columbia. Others were absorbed into US society or joined their relatives on reservations. Tribes used Chinook Wawa in their wars against the US Army and for Treaties after they lost. While it declined in the US, it spread in British Columbia.

The Hastings Mill, the largest employer in the new Vancouver, operated in Wawa. US gold miners learned it to feign a connection with the Hudson Bay Company government. The Kamloops Wawa newspaper was written in Wawa using French shorthand. Chinese newcomers learned it rather than English, their words recorded in court cases.

historic picture of First Nations, Chinese, and European workers in front of Vancouver's Hastings Mill
Chinook Wawa in BC spread through multicultural workplaces like Vancouver’s Hastings Mill

Cheechakos arrived and lobbied to abolish the Hudson Bay Company government and oust Wawa speaking Governor James Douglas. Majority rules democracy enabled a racist regime, hostile to Wawa. It was suppressed in residential schools. But it survived in logging camps, canneries, native communities and with wandering singers.

Inheritors of James Douglas, like Premier Richard McBride spoke it. Opposition Leader Henry Pooley spoke to Simon Fraser Tolmie in Wawa in a public meeting, convincing him to run for Premier.

In hybrid languages, the prestige or dominant language contributes the vocabulary and pronunciation. Chinook Wawa core vocabulary is from traditional Chinook and even European words are properly pronounced with a Chinook accent. Wawa grammar is largely European. The native Verb Subject Object is replaced by the European Subject Verb Object although a native option is retained. Aboriginal features remain like sentence initial adverbs, pleonastic pronouns, plural infixes, lateral fricatives, plosives and guttural stops.

Chinook Wawa survives

Chinook Wawa survives in hundreds of place names of old Columbia, in the vocabulary of older residents and in new efforts to revive it.

Chinook Wawa has been a vital part of our history, a joint project of native and non native people, an inspiration for our future. Can you speak British Columbian?

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You can hear an old Chinook Wawa document recited here:

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