In March 2019, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) launched a special year for planning, thoughtful discussion and reflection at a board retreat in Hood River, Oregon, along what is now called the Columbia River. This small town is part of the Columbia River Gorge that has provided a sea-level passage through the Cascades for thousands of years.
In NACF’s 10th year of work, staff and board were especially moved by our experience along the river and desired to use Native language to reflect what we were embarking on during 2019. Among staff and board, we come from cultures representing more than fourteen distinct languages, so it’s not easy to come up with a particular word or phrase that makes sense for everyone. We wanted to honor the mighty river and the ancestors of that place. We didn’t want to identify the year-long process as strategic planning or even go through a standardized process of strategic planning. The effort needed to be both structured and organic, plus rigorous and flexible at the same time. There is power in language and we believed, that with help, the right word would emerge.
Historically, many diverse first nations peoples with unique cultures resided in what is now Oregon speaking their own autonomous languages. Over time Chinuk Wawa, a new “pidgin” language, developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. After European contact, this language was also influenced by French and English traders of the Hudson Bay Trading Company, and even Native Hawaiians who were brought in to work on the trading canoes that carried goods because of their skill in swimming and paddling. Chinuk Wawa combined words from the first nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinuk, and other languages including English, French, and Hawaiian. Interestingly, while “pidgin” languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the colonizing culture, two-thirds of Chinuk Wawa is Chinuk and Nuu-chah-nulth.
Tony Johnson, Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, is an artist and Chinuk Wawa language teacher who spoke to us of Wakanim (pronounced Waa-kaa-neem). Wakanim means canoes. It truly reflects the journey that NACF is embarking on this year and we are grateful for his suggestion.
The NACF and our collaborators, supporters, allies, and artists are all creative explorers in a large family of canoes traveling along the river of life. Much like the people of the past who traversed these waterways in canoes carrying important goods and stopping along the way to trade, this year NACF staff and board will work together with others to exchange ideas and share information to help inform our next five years of work. The effort will involve exploration through internal review and assessment, an online survey of NACF awardees, and outreach meetings and focus groups.
As we engage in the planning and review process, we will continue with ongoing programming that is already in place. We are looking within to internally assess our strengths and accomplishments. We are also determining what NACF can do better, and how we can improve and make our work more effective. How can we realistically focus our efforts? Stay tuned for updates and our outreach to communities, artists, and stakeholders.
The Wakanim Journey has begun.