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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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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