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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What is that mystery phrase anyway?

So I have been working on translating a Siuslaw story that Jim Buchanan told to Harry Hull St Clair in 1903, and was published years later by Leo Frachtenberg in Coos Texts. It is the last story in the book and you can find “Coos Texts” on the blog sidebar and look up “The Man Who Married the Bird”.

In the story there is a poor man who goes far up Qa’aich (North Fork Siuslaw) to some rapids and finds a bufflehead duck. The duck becomes a woman, and by the end of the story he returns home, wealthy, as the duck-woman becomes his wife and wealth power.

Here is the line with the mystery word or words in St Clair and Frachtenberg, with St Clair’s own translation written underneath his and mine under Frachtenberg’s:

From St Clair, page 67 lines 15 through 16:

Tsógwê yî´xân tsxátskwe lâ tsm̥´ma taqa´aitc tcîmītckwêɫa

so one.day he.got his fish.spear + North.Fork.up he went.

Frachtenberg page 186:

Tsō kwe yîxen tsxats kwe lä tsm̥´ma ta qayáatc tcî´mītc kwe ɫa.

So (perhaps) once got (perhaps) his fish.spear and North.Fork ? (perhaps) go

tcî´mītc is the mystery word or words. St Clair wrote it all together with kwe (perhaps) and ɫa (go). tcî´mītc does not appear in the Hanis wordlist I have compiled (neither to variations like ch’im- or tsim or ts’im). I have a guess at the moment that this may in to one of three possibilities.

One is that it was a word or phrase not recorded elsewhere, so we can no longer be sure of the meaning.

Second is that it is based off of the word chii, there. -im/-om and -iich or both locative suffixes; the former meaning ‘the part of, the side of’ and the latter meaning in, at or on. So if that were the case, the phrase would mean something like ‘at that place there’ (on North Fork). However, there are not many examples of -om/im but of the ones that are, Frachtenberg noted it always affixed to adverbs – never nouns like “North Fork”. It’s possible that it could and did affix to nouns, and Frachtenberg just didn’t happen to elicit such an example. Also, per his grammar, -om/-im never appears before -iich, it is the other way around. So it should have been chiichom, rather than chimiich. However, again Frachtenberg didn’t elicit many examples so it is possible that the order of these two locative suffixes has more flexibility than Frachtenberg realized.

The third possibility is that both St Clair and Frachtenberg erred in separating tcî´mitc from the word for North Fork, Qa’aich. These might be the locative affixes -om (part of, side of) and -iich (in, at, on) affixing directly to Qa’aich, and St Clair mistakenly wrote the suffixes along with the final consonant of Qa’aich (a geminant, meaning doubled, consonantal sound) at the start of a ‘word’. So it should have looked like this: Qa’aich:imiich, meaning something like North Fork-part/side of-at, because the youth walked a long way up North Fork before reaching the head of a certain rapid. All in all, at the moment I am leaning towards this explanation.

Let me know what you think, or if you have an alternate explanation, in the comments!

Also, as a quick note, I thought I had written of this one aspect before of the texts collected by St Clair versus those written down by Frachtenberg, but for reasons I have never figured out, all of the St Clair texts have copious use of the particles kwa and kwe, which mean ‘as if, kind of, like’ and ‘perhaps’. These particles are in numerous lines in St Clair’s stories, but he never translates these particles. They don’t appear nearly as often in the texts Frachtenberg collected, though he does preserve them without comment in his reprints of St Clair’s materials. I don’t know why this is – was Buchanan unsure of his memory of the tales when he spoke to St Clair, but a decade later when he worked with Frachtenberg he wasn’t unsure? It is true that with the exception of one story, all the stories he told to the two men are different stories. But I have puzzled over why this is, and still have no idea.

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Two Nuuskilii women

If you look at the previous post about spooky stories, one of the links goes to a post about the scary Nuuskilii women, which are translated into English as ‘giant women’ or ‘pitch dress ogresses’.  In Frachtenberg’s work with Jim Buchanan, he translated nuuskilii as ‘giantesses’ or ‘the big women’, and he included 3 stories of them in his book “Coos Texts” (see sidebar).

Frachtenberg got alternate versions in English only that he jotted down in his notebooks.  The story below is a story of the “giant women” that comes from Frachtenberg’s notebook:


There live two Nouskilli women. But people think there is only one, because they see only one. The people live in a little village. Every evening the people’s children go playing on the beach. One time the children see a big woman coming. They get scared. The big woman changed herself into a young girl. She says, “I will play with you, children.” She does so and then picks out a girl children of the richest people. She caught a girl, just in a basket and said, “I will take you home.” She ran with her to her home. The other children get scared, but see how they women took the boy. They do not know, however, which way she went.

In the same way she stole the boy, every boy of a certain rich family. Only the youngest boy remains and in the house of his father. The youngest boy is sorry about his sister. He begins to dream about her. He dreams that his brother told him where to find the door to the house of the Big Woman. The door is amongst arrowsticks [ocean spray] and [sword ferns]. He told him in dreams: If you come here, pull the top of arrowsticks hard, and the door will open. The boy believed in his dreams and he went there. His folks do not know it. He gets there, looks around, sees the brush of arrow limb and bricks, he pulls hard; finally he raises the door and look down. He sees his brother there and asks for his sister. He is told that she is living yet, but in bad health. He cannot go down and his brother [said], “What is the big woman doing?” Answer: “There are two of two of them, both are sleeping at present. I always make lots of noise, but they keep on sleeping together alongside the fire. When they sleep their heads are joined together. They sleep all day, never wake up in daytime. Only at night they travel and father quohogs (clams). Sometimes they bring home lots of them. They cook them. The fat, good, clams they eat themselves, those that have no meat, and are filled with sand, they give to us saying, ‘that they are good to eat.’”

He also told them that women had taken out the girl’s heart and hung it on her ear. Then the youngest brother went home to tell his father about it. He went. His father says: “Let’s pick up some pitchwood. They gathered pitchwood. The boy said: “The house is very deep, I couldn’t go down there.” They took a ladder along, in order to go down on it. They got there. The boy again pulls at the door, opens it. The whole crowd goes down and they see the two Big Women sleeping alongside the fire, their heads almost joined together sound asleep. They have long hair. They first took out the boy and girl, and all the money and property belonging to the two women, arrowstick, arrowbow. They then fill the house with pitch. The women are still sleeping soundly. They used to rob graveyards and this way get lots of money. The crowd ties the hair of the Two Women together. They set fire to the house and to the dresses of the Women,and leave the house and shut the door. They put heavy logs on the door, so that the Women shouldn’t be able to open it. Then they listen from above. They hear the women wake up. One says, :”What’s the matter with you, why do you frighten me, let my hair go.”

They finally get their hair loose and jump at the door. They scream. They almost lift the door. They jump five times at the door – in vain. One says: “What’s the matter with our door? I can’t lift the door when I jump.”

They finally give it up. Fire singes them and they burn. The first Woman burns and her heart comes out and gets through the door. But the people on the outside club the heart with a piece of board and kill it. Same way with the other Woman’s heart. Then people say, “After this you will be nobody. Last people will see you. You will be harmless.”

The little girl whose heart hung in her ear died (?). Her people cut off the string that hung down and as soon as this is done-the girl dropped dead.

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The annual Halloween-inspired post of strange stories

Halloween is coming, and the time of year when many love to hear stories of the uncanny, odd and unusual, bafflingly strange or downright scary tales.  So I am posting my annual compilation of tales and events of the odd, strange, unusual, or scary.

Here is the story of the “Willanch Monster” I just wrote about a year ago.

The “giant people” were not particularly hostile or dangerous, but they certainly are unusual. Today’s giant people seem to be bigfoot, a figure of much legend and still searched for by some hopeful seekers.

The ‘wild beings’, stories of those who had somehow lost their humanity.

This one is a bit of history. There was a woman known as Minnehaha, and she disappeared. How she disappeared, no one knows. Some speculated that when she became lost, she became one of the ‘wild beings’

The notorious ogresses, recounted in many northwestern stories as fearsome women who steal children and men.

A legend that was told by Annie Peterson, of a young man who went very, very wrong after an unfortunate encounter with a snail shell.

The strange story of people turned to stone at Fossil Point.

And finally, a story from Euchre Creek country about two foolish, arrogant brothers and an angry octopus.

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Milhau’s Lower Umpqua wordlist, 1856

AAS -Umpqua Res. Portrait

Above: Image of man at Fort Umpqua, 1850s

In my previous post I wrote about Dr. John Milhau’s wordlist of Hanis that he made in the autumn of 1856 while stationed at Fort Umpqua. He also made a word list of Alsea (alas I don’t have a copy of that) and of Lower Umpqua.

Milhau’s Lower Umpqua wordlist is more straightforward – he only recorded one speaker rather than two. And, unfortunately, as with his Hanis speaker he didn’t identify who his Lower Umpqua informant was either. So far I haven’t seen any surprises in his Lower Umpqua list – many of his words appear in later ethnographers’ records. One thing I can tell is that Milhau’s speaker spoke the Lower Umpqua rather than the Siuslaw dialect. While Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw are classified as a single language, there were a few dialectal variations between them. Sometimes they had different words for things, and sometimes where Siuslaw has an l, Lower Umpqua has an n:

head hau-wá-ka xwáaka qamílis Milhau’s word seems to be much more similar to the Lower Umpqua form than the Siuslaw one.
face kong´-ge-ne qanni qalni n/l
bone tsná-we tsnawi tslawi n/l
dog tkoi-yús k’wiiyuus sqaxch This appears to be related to the Alsea tsqax
tree tsa-et-sí hlqaituu, ts’asii hlqaituu, ts’asii Milhau’s form seems closer to ts’asii, which is the word for spruce. In Siuslaw, there is not a word for ‘tree’, instead hlqaituu (douglas fir) or ts’asii (spruce) is used instead.

There is a lot of unanalyzed Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua language in Harrington, so hopefully after working through that, we’ll have a better understanding of Milhau’s list and the Siuslaw language generally.

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Puzzles in the First Coosan Wordlist, 1856

In autumn of 1856, physician John J. Milhau was stationed at Fort Umpqua. At the time he was a young man of 28, and had been raised and educated in New York City. He wrote down word lists of what he thought were two dialects of Coos, one list of Lower Umpqua, and Alsea. For the Coosan and Siuslaw/Umpqua languages this was the first time, so far as we know, that they were written down.

Unfortunately, Dr. Milhau did not name his two Coos informants, nor his Lower Umpqua one. Dr. Anthony Grant wrote about Milhau’s Coos wordlist, and gives a good background on it.  It isn’t even entirely clear which villages the two Coos speakers came from. In Milhau’s correspondence, there are multiple sheets with wordlists – one only has words from a dialect he he labeled “An A Sitch” (certainly Hanisich, the village at Empire), the other “Coos Bay 2”. Then he made a compilation with both dialects listed in two columns; the left column labelled ‘Coos Bay”, the right column is unlabelled. To make things more confusing, he changed how he wrote down some of the words between these lists (for instance changing things he wrote initially with kw- as qu-; and in English orthography qu- almost always stands for the kw- sound) and the unlabelled column appears to be what he initially labelled the An A Sitch wordlist.  Perhaps the weirdest (to me) aspect of Milhau’s orthography is his wide use of /r/ – for a language that does not have /r/. Dr. Grant speculated Milhau came from the eastern US, and grew up with a “form of English which lacked word-final or preconsonantal /r/…” Which was indeed true for Milhau. In spite of these orthographic quirks, I can recognize most of the words. There are a few interesting puzzles and quirks, however.

One thing I noticed is that there was some sort of communication problem between himself and his informants. That isn’t surprising – in 1856 few to none of the Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua people could speak English (the one possible exception might have been people from Ts’alila who traded a lot with the HBC Fort Umpqua) and Milhau obviously could not speak Hanis (or Milluk, Siuslaw/Umpqua or Alsea). Milhau had appeared to learn at least a few words of Chinook wawa – and so he either interviewed his informants in Chinook wawa, or he had an interpreter who spoke it. Either way, there seemed to be the occasional misunderstanding. For instance, for ‘ocean’ he wrote down mit-sis and mit-slis, which look like the word mits’lis, salt. (Ocean is baldiimis). Another one is that for ‘sky’ he wrote kyse and tackt-nitz. Kyse is probably qais, a Hanis word that can mean (depending on context) sky or universe. Tackt-nitz may be taqnis, cloud. Apparently this informant misunderstood what Milhau was asking and gave him the word for cloud instead of sky. Another funny one is ‘turtle’ – Milhau recorded pō-ti-ke and ne-kun. ‘Turtle’ was later recorded for both Hanis and Siuslaw/Umpqua as nikan – recognizable in ne-kun. Dr. Grant thought pō-ti-ke might be bátki, bobcat. It is possible, though odd that the one informant thought Milhau was asking about bobcat when he meant turtle. Out of curiousity – assuming Chinook wawa was the medium of communication – I looked up ‘bobcat’ and ‘turtle’ in my handy dandy dictionary of the language from Grand Ronde. Turtle is iɫaqwa (ihlaqwa) and bobcat is lumulo-pus (wild-cat), shawash pus (Indian cat) or yutskat upuch (short tail). How one could confuse turtle and bobcat, I don’t know…but it could have happened. For ‘pine’ he got tsup-oock (which does resemble Hanis tsipkw, shore pine) and po-who-ya which…looks to me like the word baxwiya, which is kinnikinnick. I am thinking Dr. Milhau either needed a better command of Chinook himself, or a better interpreter. Although I do not mean to be too hard on him – all in all, he did pretty well for someone not trained in linguistics, trying to communicate with people he did not appear to share a common language with (I know how hard that is – once in southern Italy at a party, I was trying to talk to people who only spoke Italian, and the closest I could get was using my very primitive Spanish. It was quite funny, really, and needless to say conversation was limited-but at least there was wine and good food).

At the end of his compilation under the “Coos Bay” column he wrote “Anna-sitch” (Hanisich) for “Coos Bay Indians” and the more enigmatic Te-serch-may-ah-klit-tah under the unlabelled column. The final two syllables are probably his rendering of tl’ta, which means ground, earth or place in both Hanis and Milluk. Perusing the vocabulary, Milhau seemed to interpret the phoneme tl’ as a ‘klick’ sort of sound, and wrote it out as klik, kek, and so forth. It occurs to me, after staring at the rest of it for awhile, it may be tiseich me u tl’ta, meaning “Tiseich person’s place”. There was a village, usually called Ntise’ich or Ntisech but sometimes Tisech, that was a short distance north of Hanisich. It would be rather funny if his two speakers came from these two villages that were so close to each other.

So why do linguists think Milhau somehow missed Milluk entirely, but instead may have gotten 2 slightly different varieties of Hanis? Because while both Coos languages share many nouns, there are a few where they differ quite sharply – words like black bear, face, fire and head:

bear shur-mitl, shi-mitl shximhl pelel
head hwurlu, ki´-lu-sit xwuuluuxw, xwiluuxw sel
face a a, a-a e hel
Fire chu-etl, chu-etz chwehl hemelt’

Milhau’s words seem to be similar to Hanis words, rather than Milluk (the one oddity here is ki-lu-sit from his “Coos Bay” list, which I have not been able to identifiy).

So, Milhau’s wordlist is drawn from two Hanis speakers. And, is appears in a few cases as mentioned above, like getting ‘salt’ for ‘ocean’, there was a little confusion among speaker as to what words Mihau was looking for.

For the most part, other words on the list point to minor differences in pronunciation between the two speakers. There are, however, a few oddities in there that I can not tell are due to different words in different dialects, or misunderstandings I haven’t been able to puzzle out. For instance:

Blood kah-eye (or ka-ai) wer-tin (or wu-tin) Witin, or wi’in and similar forms is all that was recorded for ‘blood’ in later recordings. I have not been able to identify ‘kah-eye’.
Island Kle-var-litz (or kli-var-litz) Itz-kles (or itz-clāce) Tlpalos is consistently given for island in Hanis, dla’a in Milluk. Both of these words are opaque to me.

There is one phonological change Milhau noted that jumped out at me – subtle, and only there with two examples, but because it reminded me of something from the different dialects of Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua it jumped out at me. In the word for ‘wood, stick, tree’, nik’in, Milhau notes that it does have n- in the “Coos Bay” dialect but l- in the unlabelled column. For some Siuslaw words, they used l where Lower Umpqua used n. Some examples are the word for bone (tslawi versus tsnawi) or face (qalni versus qanni). Here’s what I was looking at from Milhau’s list:

tree Tsup-oock nūck-quin On the left, probably tsipkw, shore pine. On the right, nik’in (wood, tree, log, stick) or nuuk’wiin (forest)
Wood Tke-yah lich-ken The word on the left might be k’iiyas, small stick. The word on the right looks like nik’in where the first n is replaced with an l.
100 Ich-high-nick-ken ich-high-lick-ken 100 is literally ‘one stick’, yixai nik’in; and on the right yixai lik’in with that curious l substitution.
1000 Klop-kon-nen-nick-ken klop-kon-ner-lick-ken 1000 is literally ‘ten sticks’ – tlopqanii nik’in, and on the right tlopqanii lik’in, again with the l substitution.

This is the only instance I’ve noticed a switch from n to l in a Hanis word – nik’in (wood, stick, log, tree) was in subsequent sources always recorded with a word initial n (and this word was recorded from many different speakers by many ethnographers). I remember Jim Buchanan once said that all the people from Winchester Bay were bilingual Siuslaw and Hanis speakers – wouldn’t it be funny if Milhau’s second informant was actually from Winchester Bay? Or perhaps had a parent from there (or otherwise spent a lot of time there growing up) and thus had this interesting quirk of speech? Or was there indeed at one time a dialect of Hanis where lik’in was the usual word for wood, etc? And that dialect was soon lost in the collapse of the tribal population and speech community? I suppose at this remove we will never really know, but it is kind of interesting and frustrating, as we know that while a lot of vocabulary and stories were recorded, so many were not, and it leaves us with unanswerable questions.

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