Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Notes on Native American Place-Names of the Willamette Valley Region

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Notes on Native American Place-Names of the Willamette Valley Region

Article excerpt

THE FIRST KNOWN DIRECT CONTACT between speakers of a lower--Columbia-River indigenous language and speakers of a European language occurred in 1792, when the American trading ship Columbia Redeviva, under Captain Robert Gray, succeeded in passing the treacherous shallows at the mouth of the Columbia River, anchoring near the village of Chinouk (or Chinoak) on the north bank of the river near modern Chinook, Washington. While the world now knows the great river "discovered" by Gray and his men by the name of their ship, the American and British seafaring traders who followed Gray's lead into this heretofore untapped source for the international fur market called the river by the name of the very first Native village encountered there--Chinook (historically usually pronounced \,ch[??]-'nuk, cha,--'nuk\). Like other Native names commented on here, the original narrow or local reference of the name Chinook was completely transformed as a result of contact. Originally a Lower Chehalis name of just one Chinookan village, "Chinook," in the course of time, came to designate Chinookan people in general, their tribal languages and dialects, and the intertribal hybrid lingua franca of the old Northwest--Chinook Jargon (or, following the current usage of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Oregon, where it is taught as a community heritage language, Chinuk Wawa)--not to mention a species of salmon and a warm, winter wind termed so by people from the Pacific Northwest coast all the way to interior Montana.

At the time of Gray's visit, the lower Columbia region was thickly populated by Native people speaking a diverse array of indigenous languages. That situation would change dramatically over the following forty years, as introduced diseases took their toll on vulnerable Native populations. An outbreak of malaria in 1830 sent the Native villages at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers and the greater Willamette Valley into a precipitous decline from which they never recovered. (1) The drastic social and economic marginalization of local Native people that followed has implications for the following notes on the Native presence in modern Willamette Valley region geographic names. American, British, and Canadian traders who first established permanent foreign settlements on the lower Columbia--beginning with the founding of Astoria in 1811--devoted time and effort to learning the languages of their local Native trading partners, but they found the task daunting. Chinookan languages in particular had a well-deserved reputation for "extreme difficulty," as one early visiting scholar observed. (2) Communication was usually served by the easily acquired Chinuk Wawa, a hybrid medium whose ultimate origin--whether rooted in intertribal contact preceding the early seafarers' arrival or developed rapidly in response to that arrival--is still vigorously debated by scholars. The great depopulation of 1830-1834 reinforced the use of Chinuk Wawa, which became not only the usual medium of communication between local Natives and newly arrived settlers, but was also increasingly the principal medium of Native intertribal communication.

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The main purpose of these "Notes" is to supplement Willamette Valley-region entries in Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur's standard reference, Oregon Geographic Names, with relevant information I have accumulated over the years from linguistic and ethnographic sources, many of which are not widely accessible. (3) Those sources document the several indigenous languages originally spoken within this region as well as Chinuk Wawa. A handful of Native elders born into the era of Euro-American frontier expansion, which saw the virtual obsolescence of all Northwest Oregon indigenous languages and lifeways, are responsible for most of what we know about these languages. The professional scholars who left us written records of that knowledge were an even smaller handful, mostly divided between university professors and linguists attached to the Bureau of American Ethnology or to its successor agency, the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology. …

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