Chinook Jargon — Language of the Court

By the 1860s, Chinook Jargon had become the de facto official language of communication between the government and Indigenous peoples. It was used in the courts, in treaty and land negotiations, in schools, churches, and work places to allow communication between Aboriginal people and immigrants.

Chinook Jargon was based on a pre-contact lingua franca used by Aboriginal groups around the Columbia River to communicate with each other. When Europeans arrived, French, English, and other words were adopted to refer to the novelties that they introduced. Given its origins -- a language of communication between a variety of Aboriginal and later European groups whose languages and cultures were very different -- it is no wonder that Chinook was a language of deliberate ambiguity. A much simplified language developed to express rudimentary meanings surrounding trade, its vocabulary never exceeded 800 words. Since each of the language groups had their own concepts of time, counting, gender, and causation, these kinds of specific refinements all dropped out of this language, which was common to them all. Captain Wilson, a military surveyor and amateur ethnologist in B.C. in 1858-60, described the jargon:

"In the Chinook language there is no article, the case is determined by the construction; the plural is generally formed by prefixing hai-iu (many), and the superlative by prefixing hi-us (very). In speaking, a great deal is expressed by the stress of the voice on certain syllables, and by gesticulating, or the use of signs with the hands..."1 There is one main preposition in the language "kopa", which can be interpreted variously as "in, on, at, about, concerning" not to mention the opposites "to" and "from". Tense is expressed by the insertion of ambiguous markers, like l-ta, which meant both "now" and " then".

Missionary Thomas Crosby, who lived among the Hul'qumi'num speaking people of Vancouver Island, gave an example of the potential for re-interpretation when English is translated into Chinook. One of his church superiors addressed a gathering of Aboriginal people as "Children of the Forest". In Chinook this had to be rendered as "little men among big stick" and of course offended his listeners who did not want to be called "little men". William Duncan, also a Protestant missionary, described Chinook as "deplorably unfit for conveying Christian truth." He reported that the Catholics had tried to teach the local people through this medium but the few ideas which they managed to have "installed are so ludicrous as must, one would think, have created disgust in the breast of the poor Heathen." 2 The observation is probably just as apt when Chinook was used in the courts.

Some Chinook Translations for English Terms Likely Used at Tshuanahusset's Trial
English Chinook Literal or related meanings
arrest no translation
crime no translation
judge tyee kopa court Chief of the Court
lawyer no translation
lie (to tell a) wawa kliminawhit to talk false
murder mamook memaloose to make dead
oath no translation
police tyee chief, superior, boss, officer, master, gentleman, foreman, manager
prosecutor no translation
shoot mamook poo make noise of a gun
steal kapswolah rape, kidnap, secret(ly)
testimony wawa kopa court talk in the court
truth delate straight, true, direct, sincere, correct, exact, sure
Thou shalt not steal Wake kloshe mika kapswolla Not good you steal
witness no translation


Edward Thomas Harper, Chinook: A History and Dictionary, (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1935).
1. Captain Wilson, "Report on the Tribes inhabiting the country in the vicinity of the 49th Parallel of North Latitude," Transactions of the Royal Ethnological Society of London, N.S. vol. 14. (1866) p. 326.
2. Thomas Crosby, Among the An-ko-me-nums Or Flathead Tribes of Indians of the Pacific Coast, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907) p. 54; Church Missionary Society, C.2./0 Appendix C, Micro A 105, William Duncan to Rev. H. Venn, Secretary of the Committee of the C.M.S. July 27, 1857. EnglishChinookLiteral re-interpretation into English