Even before I saw the water, I heard the rumble. Sounding like a river or a waterfall, the noise was gently muffled by the sword ferns and step moss as it reverberated through the sky-scraping red cedars and Douglas firs. What I was hearing was not a river, and if I’d come along this trail an hour earlier or later, I’d have heard nothing at all.

I was visiting the Skookumchuck Narrows, one of Canada’s most famous tidal rapids, which are located a ferry ride north-west of Vancouver at the head of Sechelt Inlet on the Sunshine Coast. On a 3m tide as much as 760,000,000 cubic metres of water passes through the narrows, creating imposing white-water rapids that diminish to calm water four times a day as the tide turns. But the reason I was here was not to marvel at the daring kayakers as they surfed the standing waves. Instead, I had come to ask about the name of the place.

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Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years.

Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from.

Curious what these visitors to the Skookumchuck Narrows might know about the site’s name, I waited for a Vancouver kayaker named Jill to step away from the furious water, then asked if she knew what Skookum means. Almost in chorus, an entire crowd of kayakers answered. “It means awesome. Big and awesome.” And chuck, I asked? “That’s the ocean,” they replied.

They’re not entirely correct – historically, skookum meant strong or impressive, and chuck meant water (saltchuck meant the sea), but once words become part of a local lingo they can change with time. When I asked if they knew where the word Skookumchuck comes from, there was a puzzled silence. Finally Jill answered. “I think it comes from here,” she said, gesturing toward the rocky cliffs and dense green forest.

The birth of a new language

Chinook Wawa was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka'wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix.

While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French.

There are a few different theories about how Chinook Wawa arose. Some say it existed between linguistically different First Nations groups long before European contact.

Others put its development in the hands of Captain Cook: after his 1778 visit to the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth words he recorded were sent back to England and subsequently used by European traders on the Pacific Coast. Almost 30 years later and 425km south, explorers Lewis and Clark encountered these Nuu-chah-nulth words being spoken as part of the trade language in the home region of the Chinook people, present day Oregon’s Columbia River Valley.

Still other experts say Chinook Wawa was developed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to be used as the common language of the fur trade.

If you were coming as a missionary, a businessman or for the Fraser Canyon gold rush, you needed two things: warm clothes and a Chinook Jargon dictionary

But retired University of British Columbia professor and anthropological linguist Jay Powell believes Chinook Wawa developed more organically than this. Powell, who is one of the last fluent speakers of Chinook Wawa, points to the women and children who settled on the Columbia River after the first forts were established in the early 1800s. He explained that many of the European settlers in the area had indigenous wives from a variety of different First Nations. These women and their children rarely shared a common language with their husbands or their neighbours, he said, so the linguistically simple Chinook Wawa became the language of the region.

“During the time of settlement, everyone knew this,” Powell told me, “If you were coming as a missionary, a businessman or for the Fraser Canyon gold rush, you needed two things: warm clothes and a Chinook Jargon dictionary.”

Used by First Nations people, traders, immigrants, missionaries and their children, over the next several decades, Chinook Wawa expanded, progressing from a few hundred words to a more complex language capable of conveying jokes and even an opera called Keel-a-Pie (Come Back). By the time England and the US partitioned the Northwest in 1846, the language had followed the retreat of the Hudson’s Bay Company from Fort Vancouver on the present-day border of Oregon and Washington to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island and further north.

A sampling of Chinook Wawa

Boston: American

Boston wawa: the American-English dialect

Chuck: water, liquid

Skookumchuck: big water or fast water

Saltchuck: salt water, the ocean 

Cultus: bad, worthless, nothing, broken, unworthy

Kanaka: Hawaiian person

Mowich: deer

Muckamuck: food, to eat

Potlatch: to give, gift

Siwash: man, a male

Skookum: big, mighty, strong, true, genuine, solid

Sticks: to do with trees, or somewhere in the bush or forest

Tyee: chief  

Chinook Wawa was reaching its peak in the 1860s when the Hastings Sawmill on Burrard Inlet became the birthplace of Vancouver. The managers spoke Chinook Wawa, and Chinese and Japanese immigrants who worked at the mill learned the pidgin language rather than English. Further inland, the Kamloops Wawa newspaper provided the news of the day in English, French and Chinook Wawa from 1891 through 1905.

Searching for the lost language

The new language never did take over. The forces that brought an end to Chinook Wawa were numerous: smallpox and other epidemics decimated the First Nations populations; residential boarding schools for First Nations children destroyed much of the indigenous culture that was left; and the new government brought institutionalised racism, establishing English as the dominant culture and language. Not long after, the young men who used Chinook Wawa to talk, sing and joke were called off to World War One.

By 1962, it is estimated the remaining Chinook Wawa speakers numbered only 100.

But the language left a mark. When I started to research the musical sounding words I recalled from my childhood, Powell cautioned me that it was important to get the story of Chinook Wawa right.

“There’s nothing transcendent about Chinook Wawa,” he said. “Because it’s part of our history, it enriches our present. That’s all.”

Because it’s part of our history, it enriches our present

But former Vancouver mayor, and self-taught Chinook Wawa speaker, Sam Sullivan, says the language helped shape what British Columbia became. “We were a new kind of place ­– and it was reflected in the egalitarian language we’d created together. We had a mixed-race governor, James Douglas, who was married to a First Nations woman. Their daughter Martha spoke and wrote in Chinook Wawa.”

By learning and teaching Chinook Wawa, Sullivan hopes to recapture and understand some of the forces that first created the province. “It’s the best artefact we have to prove that we didn’t start as a racist place,” he told me.

Today, some of the last traces of Chinook Wawa can be found in our landscape. As I visit sites, many in what would be called ‘the sticks’, or forest, in Chinook Wawa, I’m brought back to early memories of my family heading out on the saltchuck to fish for halibut or salmon. I’m not sure when I learned the steel-blue ocean, with its white-shell midden beaches and misty forests, is only called the saltchuck in the Pacific Northwest – and even then only by old-timers. But I do know when I hear the word it conjures a feeling of rugged self-sufficiency and a particular scent of brine.

Like many First Nations place names, Chinook Wawa names typically translate to simple descriptions. But some of them feel like mysteries. At Cultus Lake, I pondered what it was about the popular recreational site that once caused the lake to be named ‘bad’ or ‘worthless’. When I exited a winding trail above Siwash Rock in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, I couldn’t help but wonder who gave the dramatic sea stack a name derived from the French term for wild (sauvage), a word that went on to become a derogatory term for indigenous people.

The powerful Skookumchuck makes sense to me. But the historical gold rush town of Boston Bar has nothing to do with Boston or a bar, and instead means Americans sought gold on this section of the Fraser River, as most fur trade-era Americans were Boston traders. At Mowich Creek, when I think I catch sight of one of the deer it was named for, I feel for a moment the echoes of whoever came before me and named this tiny Pemberton Valley trickle of water.

The name lets people experience a connection to the land from another point of view

“People say how romantic our place names sound, and are always disappointed when I tell them they’re descriptions that mean ‘big water’, ‘shaped like a hummingbird beak’, or ‘purple flowers grow here’,” said Erik Blaney a business owner and tour operator from the Tla'amin First Nation. He tells me that people are always after a story; “something with a great creator or full moon.”

Blaney does believe the old names have power though, and that they should be understood. “Knowing a place had a name before it was ever ‘discovered’ should be enough to see it in a new way. The name lets people experience a connection to the land from another point of view.”

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