“Dear Old Lady”: the tale of the suffix -sha

Leo Frachtenberg worked with Hanis speaker Jim Buchanan in 1909. As part of his work, he later published a grammar of Hanis. In it he noted a suffix -sha that is unusual in that unlike any other suffix in the language it affixes to one, and only one word: huu’mik’, old woman. Frachtenberg commented that “It was explained to me as having an endearing character, but instances are not lacking where the suffix is used in a derogatory sense.” I could find no examples in Frachtenberg’s work where the suffix was clearly derogatory, with one exception. He had one example of it sarcastically referring to a Pitch Woman. Pitch Women were a kind of ‘ogre’ who were notorious kidnappers of young men and frequent killer of children.

It isn’t odd to find a suffix that can be both endearing and derogatory – there are many such words and phrases in many languages, and the specific meaning in their use lies in context, body language and tone of voice. What struck me as a bit unusual is that –sha seems to affix to only one word – huu’mik’, old woman – and no other. (I have done word searches to see if it appears with other words, like huu’mis, woman or tuumitl, old man. None were found).

Lottie Evanoff, in her interviews with Harrington, did not seem to make much of a difference between the forms huu’mik’ and huu’mik’sha. For the latter, she said ‘old woman, oldish.’ for the former, she just said ‘old woman’.

Harrington’s assistant Jack Marr made sound recordings of Frank Drew in 1941.

The first time the suffix is used, it is in response to Marr’s prompt “Old woman”: Frank Drew says huumiksha. Listening to Jack Marr’s prompt, he kind of emphasizes the adjective ‘old’.

On the following recording beginning at 5:00, “He knew the old woman. Mitsisiiya lo huumiksha.”

I did some digging in texts, but all (with one exception, which I will get to shortly) were collected by Frachtenberg in his work with Jim Buchanan as well as material from other speakers, to try to figure out what exactly –sha meant, and if it was more endearing or derogatory.

Just looking at Frachtenberg’s texts (which are myths told by Buchanan) I could not find any examples there that read as derogatory to me, at least based on what I could glean from the text. The word comes up in just a few stories. One is “Night Rainbow and Grizzly Bear”, where a Grizzly killed some of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s relatives. She and her grandson eventually have revenge on the grizzlies and restore their kin back to life. (Indeed, do not mess with Night Rainbow Old Woman, she takes out one grizzly by stabbing it in a sensitive place with a digging stick made of ice!)

In the story, Buchanan describes her as a very old woman, but he uses the normal, suffix-free version of the word for ‘old woman’:

halt’yuu hlnuwii huu’mik’ lo soyaqáu

very very old.woman the night.rainbow

Night Rainbow Old Woman was very old.

She is also often referred to as ‘grandmother’, typically in scenes where she is interacting with her grandson (making him lunch, weapons, helping him restore his parents back to life).

Here are several of the scenes where she is referred to with the special suffix:

First use – after grandson has weapons she made for him, he brings home rabbits.

Heihats yuxwe wutxaiyat ho chuuxchuux.

Soon he brought back two rabbits.


Tlntits lehl huu’mik’sha.

That beloved old woman skinned them.


Yuxwe diihl nkihluuwit. Atlimaq diihl.”

I saw two things. Tall things.”


Wench tl’exom le temisnech.

That’s how her grandson spoke.


Xwitsxut shku lo e’kihluuwit.”

It must’ve been deer you saw.”


Wench tl’exom lo soyaqáu huu’mik’.

That’s how the Night Rainbow Old Woman was speaking.

Second & third use-after grandson killed the grizzly that killed his parents, he returns to the camas prairie to confront another grizzly, while his grandmother dances for him. He kills the last bad grizzly:

Sitsá’ata’ai ho lehl huu’mik’sha.

That dear old woman kept murder-dancing.


Loghii u iluwechis, I lau yixei tsxauwat lehl huu’mik’sha.

Her heart was glad, that dear old woman, when he killed one [of the Grizzlies].

Fourth & Fifth use: -When reviving his parents, his grandmother is referred to as ‘grandmother’ rather than ‘old woman’. When they return to the grizzlies’ house to rescue the other murder victims they work together to bring them to life and Buchanan uses huu’mik’sha again:

Xap ux xtlimiiyat hox huu’mik’sha.

He and the dear old lady warmed water.


Xle´ich tsuut lo e’, lo kihla, lo kxla.

With it he washed the faces, the hands, the feet.


Guus xwench tsix tsiixit….

To all he did this….


Tsuuwetl hiithiiwat hehl huu’mik’sha.

That dear old woman had grease.


Xle´ich hliphliiyaq le e, ihl le kihla, ihl le kxla.

With it she painted their faces, their hands, their feet.

In “Spider Old Woman” (Winqas Huu’mik’) she is only referred to with the suffix once, at a point in the story when she is training her grandson to have power against weapons:

Tsuu atsa lo willek lehl huu’mik’sha lox temisnech

Now the grandson gave the whale-bone club to that dear old lady.

In Buchanan’s telling of the death of the Five Grizzly Brothers, Old Wren (who defeats the last Grizzly brother) was also once described as huu’mik’sha, a dear-old-lady.

In only one story does Buchanan go a bit wild with the -sha suffix. In the 3rd “Nuuskilii” (Pitch Woman) story he told, he refers to the grandmother in the story every time with -sha. The grandmother was a hero who tried to save her grandchildren from a pair of Nuuskilii – she succeeded in killing the Nuuskilii (by luring them into a fire) but it came too late to save her grandchildren.

In Annie’s Hanis stories, she never uses the -sha suffix. She uses it once in a Milluk one. In ‘Grandmother Afterbirth’, she describes beliefs and customs around birth and the afterbirth. The placenta was called ‘the grandmother’ and was believed to cause a bruise on the lower back of newborns, and frighten the babies.

She gives the story first in Milluk, then Jacobs read it back to her and she translated it into Hanis. Curiously, she uses the -sha suffix once in the Milluk version in referring to the Old-Woman-Afterbirth, but in the identical line in Hanis, curiously, she leaves it out.

To compare here is the Milluk line (note: Jacobs uses the symbol c for sh):

tłɛ-x-hu’mik’ca tłɛ-kwi-aq’alqsit’úwa

The old woman scared her


And the Hanis:

lɛ´-x-hú’mik’ lɛ´lɛu aq’álsit’í•wat

The old woman scared her

So most of the time when the -sha suffix appears, it seems to refer with affection or respect to an elderly woman. Perhaps not unlike the English expressions of ‘dear old lady’ or ‘amazing old lady’. Twice could examples be interpreted as being sarcastic or derogatory – when used to refer to a Nuukilii or the “grandmother” afterbirth that was said to frighten newborns.

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Five Shadows: a story of dread, murder, cannibalism and a hero-child

Linguist Leo Frachtenberg came to Oregon just over a century ago, and worked with speakers of Hanis (Jim Buchanan, Frank Drew, Tom Hollis), Lower Umpqua/Siuslaw (Louisa and William Smith) and Alsea (William Smith).

One of the stories he got was one he called “The Five Shadows”. It is a disappointment because Frachtenberg, frankly, ruined the structure of the story by cutting out a portion of it. In Coosan oral tradition, it is common for a story to have 5 episodes, where the first 4 set a pattern, the 5th changes it. In the part of the story where the Stone-Hammer-Girl defeats a shadow, she goes on to destroy the next 4 shadows. Frachtenberg cut this part out, inserting a short parenthetic sentence that “She now kills the remaining four shadows in the manner described in the preceding pages.” I was hoping that the lost lines were in Frachtenberg’s notebooks. Alas they are not. His notebooks appear to be work ups of his field notes. He was writing up the stories and writing translations of the words underneath individual words and phrases, in preparation for eventual publishing. He left the killing of the last four shadows out of his notebooks too.

In spite of the gap (that is driving me nuts), I went ahead and translated the story anyway & broke it up into lines. It turns out this story is OFF THE HOOK. It’s wild. But before we get into the plot, we’ll explain the background a little – as much as is possible, as unfortunately Frachtenberg didn’t make notes on this story (he did with some of them).

The first difference is the title he wrote in the notebook versus published version. In the latter, he called it QacqaƔā´yaL (qashqaghayatl). This is the word for ‘shadow’. I wasn’t able to find out much more about the word – there are two references to it in Harrington’s notes. It is indeed a shadow cast by something (and it’s Siuslaw equivalent is huy’i). At one point Frachtenberg notes the shadows are welaq, something that is poorly or dimly seen. In his notebook he gave it two titles. The first is chilch’ ala hechit’, which means Stone-hammer child story – and the story, hechit’, refers specifically to the prehuman myth age. So that places the story as something that happened long ago during the time of the First People. His second title is Qashqaghayatl hechit’, Shadow Story.

Here is the story I’ve typed out: shadow Frach NB 5 verses The left hand column is Hanis as written by Frachtenberg in his notebook (which is slightly different than the published book version), right is English. I had to change the orthography he used slightly, as right now I cannot make the symbol g-with-dot-under-it, so I used the one with the dot above. This symbol stands for the Ɣ, the voiced x type sound, that we have been writing out as gh.

The story begins with five brothers living together, and they go deer hunting a lot. One brother sees a shadow. He isn’t sure what he is looking at. “Is that you cousin?” To be polite, he invites the ‘cousin’ to come in and eat. The Shadow asks the brother to come closer. The Shadow grabs the brother and – here is where things start to get really DARK – he throws the brother into the fire, holds him down there, and when he is dead, he eats him! And then, the story says, the shadow goes home. (Where or what this home is, is never really specified). Then, in sequence, three more brothers are killed in the same way. The fifth brother also meets a shadow, but he manages to run away.

This fifth brother is now lonely. He began messing with some objects, in his lonely and bored state. He scatters some little sticks. He picks up a stone hammer, a chilch’ or jilch’ that was used for tasks like working with chisels or pounding weir stakes. To his surprise, the hammer turns into a girl, specifically a wawa, which refers to girls from around age 10 up until they reach menarche. He immediately calls her ‘my child’, and she calls him ‘father’.

This last brother continues to go deer hunting. The Stone Hammer Girl is left alone at home. She wonders why she and her father are alone. Soon a shadow comes, and it calls her ‘grand daughter’. Are you indeed my grandfather? Well, come sit and eat. The shadow tries to grab her. He has her between his fingers, then under his arm. She squeezes out and leaps into the fire. Being a stone being, the fire does not hurt her – it just makes her HOT. She leaps into the shadow’s mouth, gets down to his heart and boils it. (Yes, I was wonder what sort of body this ‘shadow’ has and what kind of heart, but none of this is explained. I guess he has a normal body but is, through power of some sort, difficult to see, shadowy). The Stone Hammer Girl takes the body (!) of the dead shadow and buries it near the house. She does not tell her father what happened.

When her father gets home, he asks her why her clothes got stiff. She got warm, she says, He makes her a new set of clothes.

It is at this point buzzkill-Frachtenberg put in his bit of verbiage of “she kills the next 4 shadows the same way.” Then he picks up the story again. She finally tells her father that she killed all of their enemies, the five shadows. They find the shadow house and take away all the valuables. And there the story ends. Which is a little unusual, because this ending leaves out one of the tropes that appears in numerous other Coosan stories when several people are killed early in a story, the hero or pair of heroes at the end use their power to bring their dead kin back to life. No one is brought back to life this time – those 4 brothers had been eaten (yikes!) and that, is that. The eating-of-victims is a little unusual to. An especially macabre touch.

A traditional closing to a story:

Now only there it is ending.

 That way the story was being told.

Happy (er….I guess?) reading!


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As everyone knows by now, Monday is the day there will be a solar eclipse in North America. At any one place on earth, solar eclipses are much more uncommon than lunar eclipses. Throughout human history, many cultures have thought to some degree that events in the sky had an effect on life on earth, so when something unusual and perhaps not predicted happened – such as seeing a comet, or an eclipse, people often thought something terrible could befall their community.

So far about the CLUS tribes I have found very little about solar eclipses. Annie Peterson recounted a story about lunar eclipses but said she could recall nothing about solar ones. In Bissell’s Lower Umpqua/Siuslaw wordlist from 1881, he noted that the word for sun and moon was the same (tsé-te-ha, in his notation). He recorded a phrase for a solar eclipse, ‘the sun dies’, kaú o tsí te ha. Searching later records of the language, it’s probably xau tsiitiixa – xau for ‘to die’, tsiitiixa* for ‘sun’ (or moon).

Annie Peterson told Jacobs what she remembered about lunar eclipses.** She said that the moon worked for ‘the big chief of the food (of the fish), the food’s parent’. This is a reference to Thunderbird, who was supposed to be the head man of the ocean and the fish of the sea. Lunar eclipses were caused when fish eating birds like crows, ‘cranes’ (egrets), hawks, and so forth grouped together and made war on the moon, to try to get more food. The moon would go to Thunder to get more food for the birds. During the eclipse, people sent children to lay down inside the houses while they stayed outside and made noise, jingling and rattling things -to frighten the birds away from the moon.

Alsea beliefs seemed to be similar. Leona Ludson told an ethnographer in 1934 “Big birds (ravens, buzzard, etc) flew up into sky, making everything quiet – they knew going to be eclipse of moon – the birds were going to fight the moon – turned vessels upside down so blood from moon wouldn’t fall in – People watched it.”

Coquelle Thompson told interviewer Elizabeth Jacobs that the he could not recall any Upper Coquille stories about eclipses. “Never talk about eclipse of moon or sun. One time I was up at in Dalles. White people come to see Indian dance. That day about 12 o’clock, all at once, getting dark. Oh, world getting changed. Dance, dance they say. We don’t know. Indian don’t know. No story about that, they don’t know.”

Franz Boas interviewed a Tillamook man in 1894. He said that any eclipse of the sun or moon meant that the world transformer was angry. Shamans gathered and danced for five days. During an eclipse, all vessels in a house were turned upside down (in the belief a powerful person had been killed and they did not want any of that blood to drip into any container). During an eclipse people avoided eating and refused to look up at an eclipse. When Elizabeth Jacobs interviewed Nehalem woman Clara Pearson, she said she had never heard of all that. She said “Eclipses…just happened. This is the time when the spirit doctor sees the face of one about to die, in the moon. People didn’t turn dishes upside down here, not this people.”

Perhaps solar eclipses were also viewed as a moment when birds were trying to work their power over the sun, as they sometimes did over the moon. Unfortunately, some of our stories have become lost.

Nevertheless, it is good to recall one of those old warnings – never look directly at a solar eclipse. It can damage one’s eyes.

*I searched for what notes I have so far on Siuslawan words for sun and moon. In Bissell, as noted, its tsé-te-ha, or tsí-te-ha. In Harrington’s interview with Frank Drew and Spencer Scott, it is tsiitiixa. They also noted that day was tsxayuuwii.

In the Morris Swadesh recordings from 1953, May Barrett Elliott and her brother Clay both give sun as tsiitiix, while Billy Dick (Lower Umpqua) gave it as tsiitiixa.

**Here is a quick translation of Annie Peterson’s words in Hanis about lunar eclipses, along with some of Jacobs’ extra notations in interviewing her about this story in parenthesis. My additions are in square brackets.

He-hemis hethede lo k’wonyau, he k’wonyau ma’anyas

The big chief of the food, the fish-food’s parent, [this is a reference to Thunder, chief of the sea and the fishes]

lau xdluuwhwa’is leu-sh’alshit.

The moon worked for (him).

Leu-lau guus dijenen ntlbinediihl chii-ihl-hla, lau ihl-máháiwat, lau-ihl-hljet

All kinds of winged ones [birds] went there, they made war, they fought

(not merely crows, but crows, cranes [egrets and probably herons] hawks, all the birds that eat fish)

Lau-a’yuu, i-ihl-tgats.

That’s how they do, when they defeat him [the moon. Curious in this story the moon is translated as ‘he’ when in other stories by Annie and Jim Buchanan the moon is portrayed as the sun’s younger sister]

Lau-a’yuu nant-k’wonyau.

Then indeed there was much food. (when there’s an eclipse from the onrush of these birds coming to fight the moon for more food. Then the moon goes to the food’s father to get the food).

Lau i-ihl-kwonaiwat le-leu hljit, lex ntlbinediihl.

They would see the birds fighting,

lau ihl-sa’tl lex me, ihl k’woni’wat, ihl k’elit, ilau ihl-kwonaiwat lex-me, le-leu hljit lex-ntlbinediihl.

The people make noise, they shoot (arrows upward), they shouted, when the people saw that, the birds fighting (the moon).

(The people fear lest the birds injure the moon. Tneh make a racket to scare the birds back. The children are made to lie down inside-why Mrs. P. doesn’t know).

X-wench laqáwididi’ya le-dluuhwa’is.

That’s what history they tell about the moon.


Bisell, George. 1881. 873, Umkwa Vocabulary. Southwest Oregon Research Project (SWORP) Collection, Coll 268, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Jacobs, Elizabeth. 1935. Upper Coquille notes, Notebook 119, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle.

Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Milhau, John J. undated. 958, Mouth of Umpqua River Tribal Groups: Umpqua, Siuslaw, Southwest Oregon Research Project (SWORP) Collection, Coll 268, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

Swadesh, Morris and Robert Melton. 1953. 85-555-F (CD). United States, Oregon, Penutian Vocabulary Survey, Hanis Coos, Milluk Coos, Siuslaw. Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington IN.

Posted in History, Myths, Traditional customs | Tagged | 1 Comment




Sorry I have been so busy this summer I haven’t had time or energy to research posts here. Hopefully I can start writing at least semi-regularly again soon. In the meantime, here is a slightly-modified reprint of an article I wrote for the newsletter about a decade ago, about stars.

Since the total solar eclipse is coming soon to North America I will try to write about that soon. In a nutshell tho’, I haven’t found much on solar eclipses, although there is a little information about lunar ones.

Word Hanis Milluk Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua
star yuumii (YOO-mee) yuumii ts’uum
evening star qaɫama’was qaɫama’was paqauwx (pah-COW-ookh),


morning star qaumicha, q’awa’mis q’a’wamis solá-lich-pa-kó*
Pleiades miɫiiq’w (mih-hleekw), maɫiigwa (mah-hlee-gwah)  miɫiiq’w tsnih-hwi*
Milky Way aiwa me hewilts (i-wa meh heh-wilts) uwatsyamɫ txaini (oo-wats-yamhl tkhai-nih)
Constellation ‘hunter’ (Orion) ɫnda, ɫnada (hln-da, hln-uh-dah) ɫimdawa (hlim-dah-wah)
Constellation ‘dipnet’ (dipper?) guuhanyat’as (GOO-hun-YAHT-uss)

*These Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua words were written down by George Bissell in 1881, & I have not yet found them attested in any other source. He was not a trained linguist so it is not always clear what sounds he was writing down. So, I have included them on this list as he wrote them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up outside of town, away from street lights. On clear nights I was awed by the beauty of the night sky. Many people now live in cities and suburbs and have a dulled view of the night sky – the Milky Way and numerous stars are washed out by the bright urban lights. But for many thousands of years, human beings the world over watched and studied the night sky to create calendars and navigate journeys across and land and sea – and as an inspiration for storytelling. The human mind by its nature looks for patterns. Throughout the world, people have looked up at the stars, seen patterns, gave them names and told stories of their origins. Although the details vary from culture to culture, many stories tell of human or animals who were turned into stars. The stories our ancestors told of the stars were no exception. The constellations we are familiar with today mostly come from classical Greek mythology.

Unfortunately, few of the names for constellations and stars our tribes used have been remembered and passed on. There were stories of human beings who became stars, or constellations. The Pleiades (a star cluster that is part of the constellation Taurus) were called in the Coos languages maɫiigwa (mah-hlee-gwah). Long ago, they were hunters, searching and searching for their quarry but never finding it. They became the star cluster Pleiades.i

Another group of hunters in the sky was a constellation known in the Coos Bay languages as the “hunter stars”. From the description, “stars lined up with a bow”, it is probably the same constellation we know today as Orion.ii Another constellation was guuhanyátas, referring to a type of dipnet in Hanis Coos. This is probably what we call the Big Dipper today. There was also a constellation called sadlik, flounder.iii Unfortunately there was no description along with the name to help identify what group of stars this is.

There were also stories of girls who wished to marry stars, and their wishes came true. One of the most interesting aspects of these stories is that it is one of the most widespread story motifs in North America, told in variations as far away as the Great Lakes, and perhaps beyond.iv So to be known to so many disparate peoples, the roots of this story are probably quite ancient. In the version Jim Buchanan told, two girls are sleeping outside. They joke with one another about the stars and each picked one out they’d like to marry. The girl who chose a small bright star awoke next to an elderly grey haired man in the morning. The other girl chose a larger, dimmer star and she awoke next to a young man. The men told the girls “we are the men you wished for last night”.v vi

In Annie Miner Peterson’s version, there are four girls sleeping outside. This is the story as recorded in Melville Jacobs’ notebook:

The girls were always doing something, some mischief. They were going to sleep outside. They looked up above. They said “Let’s have stars for men!” [Then they’d laugh] There were 4 of those girls (chums).

I’ll have the evening star for my husband.”

I’ll have what people call that star, the hunters, the hunter star. That one will be my husband.”

And I, the one that is so bright [lit. strong shines], that one will be my husband.”

I will take the tiny one, it barely shines at all. It ought to be a small fellow I guess. That’s why it’s a small star.”

Oh let’s go to sleep!”

Then the girls laughed and laughed. [Then they fell asleep]. Then they awakened. Sure enough they each had a man. The one who had a little husband, an old man, his head and his hair, just like foam was his grey hair. The one who wanted the brightly shining one, he was a nice looking young man. The one who wanted the ‘evening star’, she had a fine big man. The other one who had a gun [bow]with him (Hunters) for her man, he was nice looking too. “We are the ones who are lined up when we go hunting.” [He is the Hunters constellation, this man]. That’s what he said to the girl. That’s why the people name them that way, those lined up stars. [Now after the girls have them for husbands, they inform the girls that their names are thus and so, and then they are named thus thereafter.] vii

Both stories end here, so we don’t know what happened to the girls after they awaken and meet their ‘star husbands’. Frank Drew, commenting on these stories said “…the stars (yu•mi) are people. They never said what kind.”viii

The Milky Way – a fuzzy band of light that is actually our galaxy obscured by interstellar dust – was known as the ‘road of the dead’. Jim Buchanan said that “When anybody died, people could see him traveling in the sky. Theou could always tell who it was. The dead they call hə aiwa me hewilts (dead men road). One can see the road river on the sky. On bright nights you can see this road, when you see a white strip on the sky.”ix A lot of tribes in North America called the Milky Way by this name, and indeed it does not take much imagination to see the band of light as a road across the night sky.x Shooting stars (meteors burning up in Earth’s atmosphere) were said to be the souls of the dead traveling up in the sky world.xi If it looked as though a falling star hit the ground, it was said a headman would soon die.xii

I hope this summer you will all have some time to stargaze, There are many good field guides out there to identify constellations. For an overview of North American Indian culture and beliefs on the stars, I recommend Stars of the First People by Dorcas S. Miller.

iJacobs, Melville. 1932-1934. Coos Ethnological Notes and Texts. University of Washington Archives. Notebook 91, pp. 127-128.

iiJacobs, Melville. 100:3

iiiJacobs, Melville. 91:127-128

ivMiller, Dorcas. 1997. Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations. Pruett Publishing, Boulder, CO.

vJacobs, Melville. 91:115-116

viFrachtenberg, Leo J. 1913. Coos Texts. Columbia University Press. New York, NY.

viiJacobs, Melville. 100: 2-6

viiiJacobs, Melville. 91:116

ixFrachtenberg, Leo. 1909. Hanis Coosan Ethnographic Notes. Maniscript No, 330, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Archives, Washington DC.

xMiller, Dorcas.

xiJacobs, Melville. 92:3

xiiJacobs, Melville. 1939. Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology 8(1):1-125.

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Hero Grandmothers

I have been working on collecting examples of the Coos (Hanis and Milluk both) suffix -sha. This suffix is unusual in that it is the only one I know of that attaches to one and ONLY one word – huumik’, old woman.

In the course of chasing down examples of the suffix, I noticed an interesting character type that appeared in some Coos and Siuslaw stories – we could call the character ‘hero grandmother’. In one way or another, these older women characters face down danger, pass down power and knowledge to their grandchildren, although often they also survive devastating losses.

I’ll give a quick synopsis of four of the stories I am thinking of that have ‘hero grandmother’ type characters. They all come from Frachtenberg’s “Coos Texts” as told by Jim Buchanan (see blog sidebar for the book).

“Night Rainbow” follows the adventures of the Night Rainbow family. One of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s sons and his wife travel through a camas prairie. They see camas bulbs in piles, but see no one around. They pick up some camas. A grizzly comes running, saying it is his camas. He kills them both, takes the bodies home and props them up in his house. Grizzly goes on to attack their village and kills many people. Night Rainbow Old Woman lives alone, but soon Grizzly comes around to attack. She fights him, and kills him with a digging stick made of ice. She raises her surviving grandson, and when he is older he asks her to make a bow and arrows, which she does. He goes on to kill the last two Grizzlies, a male and a female, while his grandmother dances for him. He has come into his own power now. He and his grandmother work together to bring their murdered kin, long stores at Grizzly’s house, back to life. Those people return home. The story ends with more teaching from a paternal uncle, they go on to fight a downriver village but when the fighting is over declare that these people will be their kin.

“Spider Old Woman” is named in such a way – Winqas (‘weaver’ or ‘woven thing’) rather than the usual word for spider, wawa’atl – implying that she is wise. Once when she is away from home, people from downriver attack her family’s home and kill almost everyone and set the house afire. One pregnant woman hides under a fallen house board. When Spider Old Woman returns home, she finds the woman, who suffocated under the board but the baby is still alive. She is able to remove the baby, a boy, and raises him. When he is old enough, and he has learned to hunt, she tells him what happened to their kin and she trains him with Power so he can not be hit with weapons. She gives him his father’s weapons. He uses the weapons and the power his grandmother taught him to attack the people who killed his family. Then, just as in the Night Rainbow story (and indeed it is a trope that appears in numerous stories) they use power to bring their dead relatives back to life. The grandson marries, and that is the end of the story.

The next story is a Siuslaw story, as told by Jim Buchanan – the Five Grizzly Bears. It is about a family of five dangerous grizzlies who kill and attack travelers. The people around them plot to get rid of them, and eventually trick four of them to their deaths at Heceta Head. The fifth and youngest brother escapes – he falls down the cliff and swims away to the north, crawling ashore on the south side of the Alsea River where he meets and old woman, Wren. Now unlike the previous two stories, it isn’t mentioned if Wren has children or grandchildren (although it is likely she did). In this story she is living alone in a house by the beach, where Waldport is today. She recognizes the young grizzly for who and what he is. She pretends to be nice to him, then kills him. Since it is a myth age story of the animal people, she makes a formal closing to the story – that when human beings come into the world, grizzly will be an animal that runs from people.

The last story I have found with a hero grandmother is a bit different. It is not set, so far as I can tell, in the myth age of the Animal People. She is a human, who has an unfortunate encounter with Nuuskili, which are tall ogre women with pitchy dresses. In “Coos Texts” it is the “Third Giantess” story. This grandmother is babysitting two of her grandsons, and she teaches them dances. One night, two Nuuskili begin to creep into the house. Grandmother recognizes the danger immediately, and hides her 2 grandchildren. She tricks the Nuusgili to dance too close to the fire, so their dresses alight. The burning pitch-women flee. Grandmother checks the boys, and finds to her sorrow that they must have seen the Nuuskili, as both are dead. When the boys’ parents and aunts and uncles return, she tells them what happened. They track the Nuuskili and find them dead on the doorstep of their house. So, grandmother killed them, but at the loss of her two grandsons.

Perhaps I will find some more ‘hero grandmother’ characters. It’s interesting, as how often in stories do older women get to be a hero? Not often, it seems. But I am glad there are heroic Coos and Siuslaw hero grandmothers. That goes especially for Night Rainbow and her ice digging stick of doom – absolutely do not mess with her!

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Spider Old Woman’s “Club”

When Leo Frachtenberg was working with Hanis speaker James Buchanan just over a century ago, he recorded a text about Spider Old Woman and her Grandson, which he printed in his book “Coos Texts” (pages 59-70) (see blog sidebar for link).  Deep into the story, Spider Old Woman begins to teach her grandson some Power, to avoid being hurt by weapons.  She trains him with a weapon called a wî´Īek (wilek), which Frachtenberg translated as a club.  As I was staring at this word, I was thinking there were other words for ‘club’, and on top of that this word looked vaguely familiar.  But from where?  So off to the Hanis wordlist I went.

Turns out the “wilek” is a little more than a ‘club’.  It turned up in Frachtenberg’s ethnography as wî´llek and in Jacobs’ notes in 1932 as wǝ´lǝk (wolok) – which is where I vague recalled seeing the word.  Buchanan gave an interesting description of it.  This type of ‘club’ was specifically a weapon rather than a tool for killing fish and game.  To Jacobs he described it as a type of ‘sword’: “…a very large arm-length knife made from a certain part of the whale’s ribs, it is used for a sword, it’s used only for fighting. It’s smoothed with stones; dried with house heat or with sun heat. The bent rib is slowly straightened on a rock so that it makes a perfectly straight knife. Jim never saw one, but heard about it.” (Jacobs 1932-34[92]:154).  His description of the weapon to Frachtenberg was similar: “made of whale bone. About 3 feet long, and the end that was to hit the enemy was thicker than the holding end. The holding end was usually round and a knot was made of strings. At the very end so as not to let the weapon slip.” (Frachtenberg 1909)

In searching for images, I think the weapon James Buchanan was describing was similar to a whale bone weapon from the Nuu-chah-nulth.

So discovering what a wilek/wolok is makes for a much more evocative image of the weapon Spider Old Woman was using to train with her grandson.

The word wilek or wolok may be derived from the verb wul-, to fight.  It also appears to be the source for the usual word for knife, wal’wal.


Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1909. Coos Fieldnotes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.


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More puzzling meanings of words from context

I’ve written before about how tricky it can be to figure out some of the specific definitions of words when they only appear once or twice.  Sometimes I have to go back and take a careful look at a word in its context to see if there are enough clues to puzzle out the meanings of a word that makes it distinct from words with perhaps similar meanings – such as, in that example from 6 years ago, what the different words for feather mean.

In the course of building a Hanis wordlist, I found two words that have (at least in part) the meaning ‘to hide’. The usual word for ‘to hide’ is stln– or stlon-. This word is used in ways similar to the English word ‘hide’ – it can refer to hiding objects, or hiding people (such as hiding from an enemy or hide-and-seek). There is a second word that has a sense of the meaning to hide, hemes– that appears only twice in the same short paragraph. It’s rare use makes it difficult to be sure of its meanings as distinct from stln-, but in this case Annie did seem to give a fair bit of background to the meaning. I first put demes in the word list as ‘to hide’ but going back and looking at it in context it seems to have a very different meaning than ‘to hide’ in the sense of hiding objects or a person hiding from others.

The context the word came up during a comment from Annie Miner Peterson talking about people who are always looking down, never look others in the eye, and are always of a ‘dark humor’. She said those kind of people are assumed to be thinking dark, mean thoughts, with a mind of hidden thoughts like a river channel. They have dark and unpleasant things hidden in their mind – a condition she called demes. She began the conversation (at least based on Jacobs’ notes) in English then switched into Hanis, which I am including below (note on orthography; first line is as Jacobs wrote it down, 2nd in our current tribal orthography, 3rd is a linguistic breakdown, 4th is a free translation into English):

í•kⱭx* ínta hú•’mis í•gú•s milɛtc kmɛnɛ´’ɛt

iikax inta huumis i-guus milech kmene’et

? mean/bad woman as/if-all time to.have.head.down=CAUSPASS

A bad woman all the time has her head down


hén•ík’is q’aimis ná•ntƏnɛ’ɛdjƏs di•łǝ´d•ɛmɛs,

henik’is q’aimis nant-u-ne’echos diihl-u-demes

equal.to, like channel/mouth many=POSS=tricks.meannesses thing=POSS=hidden.in.mind

it is just like a (river) mouth many tricky things hidden in her mind,


tsí•di•ł dǝ´misi•wat

tsii-diihl demisiiwat

simply.merely=thing hides.in.mind=ITER

She just keeps hiding things in her mind.

Note that the word demes has the common Hanis nominal suffix -s (this is just a fancy way of saying because of the –s on the end it looks like a noun, which if people recall from grammar school or Madlibs games is ‘person, place or thing’). The second time it is used it has a verbal suffix on it, –iiwat, which is described in Frachtenberg’s grammar as a frequentative (often called today iterative). Basically this just means “Kept on doing something”. It’s not unusual for words in Hanis to be used freely as a noun or a verb – it just depends on what affixes are on it and context (English also often does this, but some languages really don’t like to let words switch easily between noun and verb).

I also just find it interesting that demes has such a specific meaning of ‘hide’ – it is hiding (presumably dark or secretive) thoughts in the mind. So, I am definitely going to need to update the wordlist with this interesting and specific word, as it is definitely not interchangeable with stln-.

*iikax was not translated at all by Jacobs, and I can’t find other examples of it in Hanis. Since Hanis and Milluk often overlap with identical or very similar words, I asked Troy Anderson if he was familiar with it. He wasn’t, but breaking it down into Milluk particles it may mean something like “whereas”.

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