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American Indian Languages of Western Oregon

The Languages of Native Western Oregon

This Research Guide covers the very complex subject of Native American languages in Western Oregon. It is a resource for Lane Community College's classes on the Chinuk Wawa native language. map of seventeen Oregon languages

The map above displays the linguistic and cultural diversity of aboriginal Oregon. East of the Cascades, less abundant resources dictated lower population density and higher group mobility; the areas covered by the speakers of a given language tended to be large.  More productive areas west of the Cascades supported higher populations. The areas covered by speakers of any given language were smaller, and overall linguistic diversity was correspondingly higher. The language map illustrates graphically the effect of ecological relationships on human societies.

The 17 Oregon languages fall into five major language families shown on the map at left, along with others that did not quite reach into Oregon.  Each of these large family groupings extend far beyond the state’s borders and contains many languages, of which only the Oregon representatives are shown in the key at the right.  Each family represents a set of daughter languages descended in parallel from an original mother tongue that was spoken deep in the past.  Individual languages within a major language family can be closely or only very distantly related. Some of these languages are classified on the basis of scant evidence, so any classification scheme must be tentative in some areas. The linguistic diversity of Oregon indicates a long and complex history played out among many different people.

The Language Families

The Native Americans of Western Oregon lived in a region of incredible linguistic diversity. In only a few other areas of the world – New Guinea, the Caucasus, Northern California – were so many tongues spoken in such a small area. In this complex region of mountains, bays and valleys, 17 languages were spoken, some as different as English from Japanese.

This chart summarizes the languages of Western Oregon around 1700. In many cases, dialects are not exactly known, and the classification of many dialects and languages is still a matter of some dispute. Dialects often varied slightly from village to village, forming an intergrading dialect chain – for example, along the Lower Columbia River. In many places, especially at linguistic borders, villages were bilingual or even trilingual, and trade languages were also used to bridge communication gaps. Languages and dialects are listed north-to-south, except for west-to-east along the Columbia River.

There are four broad language families recognized in Western Oregon. These are the:

  • Athapaskan
  • Oregon Penutian
  • Salishan
  • Hokan

Athapaskan languages were spoken mainly in southwest Oregon, with two tiny pockets of speakers in northwest Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Penutian languages – a family that is rather loosely defined – were spoken on the central Oregon Coast, along the Lower Columbia, in the Cascades, in the Willamette Valley, and in the Rogue Valley. An isolated Salish language (Tillamook) was spoken on the northern Oregon coast, and a small pocket of the Hokan family (Shasta) was spoken in the southern Rogue Valley.

Penutian and Hokan languages are thought to form the oldest strata of languages in Western Oregon, perhaps going back 10,000 years. At some time in the last 2-3,000 years, a new infusion of peoples entered the region. These were Athapaskan migrants from Northern Canada, and their languages were unrelated to the Penutian and Hokan speakers. The Athapaskans filled in valleys and coastal inlets between Penutian speakers, such as the Upper Coquille Valley, the Umpqua Valley, the Applegate Valley, and the Lower Rogue River. The isolated Tillamook language was at some point separated from other Salish languages, which are mainly found in Washington and British Columbia. It is possible that Chinookan speakers came down the Columbia River from Central Oregon and split apart the Salish language family at the mouth of the Columbia. At the southern end of Western Oregon, a small pocket of Shastan speakers spilled over the Siskiyou Mountains from Northern California into the Bear Creek Valley, near modern Ashland.

1. Athapaskan Language Family

blue pin the Lower Columbia Language consisting of

  • the Kwalhioqua dialect spoken in the Willapa Hills & the Boistfort Valley of Washington (north shore of the Lower Columbia River)
  • the Clatskanie dialect on the Upper Nehalem & Clatskanie Rivers (south shore of the Lower Columbia River)

blue pin the Umpqua Language consisting of:

  • the Upper Umpqua dialect spoken in the Umpqua Valley & along the North Umpqua River (southwestern Oregon interior)

blue pin the Coquille-Tututni Language consisting of:

  • the Upper Coquille dialect spoken in the Upper Coquille Valley (southwestern Oregon interior)
  • the Kwatami dialect spoken along the Sixes River and at Floras Lake (southern Oregon coast)
  • the Tututni dialect spoken along the Lower Rogue and Pistol Rivers (southern Oregon coast)
  • the Shasta Costa dialect spoken along the Rogue River Gorge (southwestern Oregon interior)

blue pin the Galice-Applegate Language consisting of:

  • the Taltushtuntede dialect spoken along Galice Creek (southwestern Oregon interior)
  • the Dakubetede dialect spoken in the Applegate Valley (southwestern Oregon interior)
  • the Gusladada dialect spoken in the Lower Illinois Valley (southwestern Oregon interior)

blue pin the Chetco-Tolowa Language consisting of:

  • the Chetco dialect spoken along the Chetco & Winchuck Rivers (southern Oregon coast)
  • several Tolowa dialects spoken along the Smith River & around Lake Earl (extreme northwestern California)

2. Salishan Language Family

blue pin the Tillamook Language consisting of:

  • the Nehalem dialect spoken around Nehalem Bay & along the Nehalem River (northern Oregon coast)
  • the Tillamook dialect spoken around Tillamook Bay & along the Tillamook, Trask, and Wilson Rivers
  • the Nestucca dialect spoken along the Nestucca River (northern Oregon coast)
  • the Neschesne or Salmon River dialect spoken around the Salmon River estuary (northern Oregon coast)
  • the Siletz dialect spoken around Siletz Bay & along the Siletz River (northern Oregon coast)

3. Oregon Penutian Language Family

blue pin the Lower Chinookan Language consisting of:

  • the Shoalwater dialect spoken around southern Willapa Bay (extreme southwestern Washington)
  • the Clatsop dialect spoken around the Columbia River mouth & the Clatsop Plains (northwestern Oregon)
  • the Kathlamet dialect spoken along the south bank of the Lower Columbia River (northwestern Oregon)

blue pin the Upper Chinookan or Kiksht Language consisting of:

  • the Wahkiakum dialect spoken along the north bank of the Lower Columbia River (southwestern Washington)
  • the Multnomah dialect spoken at Sauvie Island & in the Portland Basin (northwestern Oregon)
  • the Clackamas dialect spoken along the Clackamas & Sandy Rivers (northwestern Oregon)
  • the Cascades or Watlala dialect spoken along the Columbia Gorge (north-central Oregon)

blue pin the Alsean Language consisting of:

  • the Yaquina dialect spoken around Yaquina Bay & along the Yaquina River (central Oregon coast)
  • the Alsea dialect spoken around Alsea Bay & along the Alsea & Yachats Rivers (central Oregon coast)

blue pin the Siuslawan Language consisting of:

  • the Siuslaw dialect spoken along the Siuslaw River & around Siltcoos Lake (central Oregon coast)
  • the Kuitsh or Kalawatset dialect spoken around Winchester Bay & along the Lower Umpqua & Smith Rivers (central Oregon coast)

blue pin the Coosan Language consisting of:

  • several (?) Hanis dialects spoken around Coos Bay and along the Coos River (southern Oregon coast)
  • one or two (?) Miluk dialects spoken around South Slough Coos Bay and along the Lower Coquille River (southern Oregon coast)

blue pin the Molalan Language consisting of:

  • the Northern Molalla or Upper Santiam dialect spoken in the northern Oregon Cascade mountains
  • the Southern Molalla dialect spoken in the southern Oregon Cascade mountains

blue pin the Northern Kalapuyan Language consisting of:

  • the Tualatin dialect spoken along the Tualatin River, Lake Wapato, and the lower Willamette River (northern Willamette Valley)
  • the Yamhill dialect spoken along the Yamhill River (northwestern Willamette Valley)

blue pin the Central Kalapuyan Language consisting of:

  • the Ahantchuyuk dialect spoken along the Pudding and Molalla Rivers (northeastern Willamette Valley)
  • the Santiam dialect spoken along the Lower Santiam River (central Willamette Valley)
  • the Luckiamute dialect spoken along the Luckiamute River (central Willamette Valley)
  • the Chepenafa dialect spoken along Mary’s River (central Willamette Valley)
  • the Chemapho dialect spoken along Muddy Creek (central Willamette Valley)
  • the Tsankupi dialect spoken along the Calapooia River (southeastern Willamette Valley)
  • the Chelamela or Long Tom dialect spoken along the Long Tom River (southwestern Willamette Valley)
  • the Winefelly and Mohawk dialects spoken along the Lower McKenzie, Mohawk, and Coast Fork Willamette Rivers (southeastern Willamette Valley)

blue pin the Southern Kalapuyan (Yoncalla) Language consisting of:

  • two or three (?) dialects along Elk, Yoncalla and Calapooya Creeks and the middle Umpqua River (southwestern Oregon interior)

blue pin the Takelma Language consisting of:

  • the Cow Creek dialect spoken along the South Umpqua River, Myrtle Creek, and Cow Creek (southwestern Oregon interior)
  • the Latgawa or Upland Takelma dialect spoken along the Upper Rogue River (southwestern Oregon interior)
  • the Lowland Takelma dialect spoken in the Rogue Valley (southwestern Oregon interior)

4. Hokan Language Family

blue pin the Shasta Language consisting of:

  • the Bear Creek Shasta dialect spoken in the Upper Bear Creek Valley (southwestern Oregon interior)