what we say here

tenas wawa : the little talk

Tzum pepah (marks on paper) and tenas wawa (small talk) are terms from Chinook Trade Jargon, which evolved as Indigenous peoples and newcomers traded on this west coast of British Columbia and adjacent US states from the 1780s onward. It is a true jargon, not a fully grammatical language, that drew mainly on Nuh-chah-nulth, Salishan, Chinook and other Indigenous languages and French, Spanish and English.

Makook—to buy or sell—was the first recorded word spoken between First Peoples and Europeans on the West Coast. It’s still in use wherever people speak tenas wawa.

Tenas wawa fell out of widespread use after World War II. I’ve met only two real speakers, the late Rev. George Taylor of Mayne Island, BC, and the late Mrs. Rufus of Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC. A few writers have explored its wonderful strength and flexibility in their poetry and fiction.

I grew up speaking words and phrases that my father picked up living in NENȺMEW or Nanaimo and ṮELPOLES or Cowichan Bay and W̱SÁNEĆ or Saanich; he called it Chinook (incorrectly, since there is an actual Chinook language) or Chinook Jargon. Most people didn’t call it anything at all. This was how we talked kopa nesika illahie—around our place, in our country.

Chinook Trade Jargon is a product of colonialism and can evoke past injustice and oppression. The early dictionaries contain racist comments. These are offensive, and I reject them. But I also cherish tenas wawa and use it when it offers the best word or phrase. I see it as a solution that diverse people worked out together to the problems of how to trade goods and how to get along with each other.

We can tear down statues, as we can attack and disrespect each other—but I would rather build something worthwhile together on better foundations: a house we can all feast in, a wild garden we can all enjoy, a workplace that helps us all prosper. We’re not there yet, but this isn’t the time to turn back.

Chinook Trade Jargon is a true voice of the West Coast, colourful and gritty to suit our needs. Long ago we created this way of talking to each other from our own languages and cultures, and it still belongs to all of us.

further reading

George Gibbs, Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or, Trade Language of Oregon. Washington, DC, 1863. Now available in digital form.

T.N. Hibben, Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon; Or Indian Trade Language of the North Pacific Coast. Victoria, 1889. Now available in digital form.

Charles Lillard with Terry Glavin, A Voice Great Within Us. Vancouver, 1998.

George Coombs Shaw, The Chinook Jargon and How to Use It: A Complete and Exhaustive Lexicon of the Oldest Trade Language of the American Continent. Seattle, 1909. Now available in digital form.

Yinka Déné Language Institute, “Chinook Jargon.” http://www.ydli.org/bcother/chinook.htm. Visited 12 November 2014.

Wikipedia, “Chinook Jargon.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinook_Jargon. Visited 12 November 2014.

The Tyee, “Can We Still Speak Chinook?” http://thetyee.ca/Life/2006/01/10/StillSpeakChinook/. Visited 12 November 2014.