Pass It On

[Children group picture]

GRAND RONDE - Like the air we breathe and the water we drink sometimes we take for granted the languages we speak. Until, that is, we're prohibited from speaking it or, even worse, those who can speak it and use it in their daily lives are dying-off.

In 2019 Ethnologue: Languages of the World ( reported that there are 219 living languages in the United States. More than 190 are the languages of Native American Tribes and villages. Of those, "41 are in trouble, and 163 are dying" because they have few surviving speakers. Chinuk-Wawa, the language spoken by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, has been among the latter but, thanks to the Confederation's efforts, now is stabilizing.

Language has always been an issue for the Confederation ever since "the winter of 1856" when, its historians have written, ( the Federal government ordered under threat of force the first of 27 Tribes and bands "to cede their ancestral lands" and relocate "to a 60,000-acre reservation in Oregon's Coast Range" at Grand Ronde. According to Portland State University ( members of the new Confederation "spoke eight different languages and more than 25 different dialects." Communication was, at best, very difficult.

Fortunately, there was Chinuk-Wawa, referred to as a "trading" language that beginning in the 1700's developed as fur traders interacted with Tribes up and down the Pacific coast. It is "quite a mix," David Robertson told PRI's The World. ( "Much of it comes from the old Chinook language but, he added, there are significant contributions from the Chehalis tribal language, French, English and the Nootka Jargon from British Columbia."

But it worked as a common language and soon Chinuk-Wawa - also known as Chinook Jargon - became the language "the kids would grow up speaking." During the "nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century," reported The Corvallis, Advocate, ( "Chinook Jargon was used by as many as 250,000 people along the Pacific Slope, from Alaska to Oregon."

In 1954 almost 100 years after the 27 Tribes and had been forced onto the reservation, they were forced off it with Congress' passage of a law stripping the Confederation of its Federal recognition and encouraging its members to assimilate into the larger society, a society in which English, not Chinuk-Wawa, was the language of the realm. In 1983 the Federal government restored recognition, but by 1990 the U.S. Census counted ( only 17 people who spoke Chinuk-Wawa.

The Confederation refused to let its language die. In 1997 the Confederation began a systematic effort to revive its use, establishing a 5-day-a-week language immersion program for preschoolers., This was then followed by half day language immersion classes for students in kindergarten and 1st grade and then 2nd and 3rd grades were added. The Tribe is working toward adding half day 4th and 5th grade immersion. There are bi-weekly after-school bilingual education class, a two-year language class in high school. Adult Chinuk Wawa classes are offered by Lane Community College.

Ninety-five percent of its students complete the curriculum. Another milestone was celebrated in 2012 when, the Confederation published a 496-page Chinuk-Wawa dictionary. More recently, it's created an app to teach the language on-line. "It's part of our heritage, and we want to pass it on to future generations," one student told The Salem Statesman. (

Today, Chinuk-Wawa is alive and getting much better. And, now HUD funds will strengthen it further. Under the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, HUD has funding relationships with virtually every one of the nation's almost 570 Federally recognized Tribes and Native Alaskan Villages.

Among those relations is an annual competition by which HUD awards Indian Community Development Block Grant funds to assist Tribes in meeting their housing, community and economic priorities, priorities chosen by the grantees, not HUD. In June 2019, HUD awarded $63.1 million to 85 Tribes and Tribal organizations.

The Confederation was among the winners. It will receive $500,000 to construct a 2,700 square-foot building as the new home for its kindergarten to 5th grade language immersion program that is "strongly linked" to "to cultural identity and survival".

"The Confederation has done a remarkable job of bringing its language back from the brink of extinction," said HUD Northwest Regional Administrator Jeff McMorris. "We are pleased that HUD funds can play a small role is supporting its continuing effort to build a strong, sustainable, inclusive community."


Content Archived: February 1, 2021