In Hanis, the word for waterfall is huunat’. The word in Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua is very similar, huunat’a. And in Hanis there is a special word just for head-of-waterfall which is kwiitlimis.
Occasionally Coos speakers would talk about ‘waterfalls’ being in places where there aren’t any. One case in point is in Jim Buchanan’s version of a Siuslaw story “The Man who Married the Bird” (Coos Texts, Frachtenberg):
Tsuu kwe yixen sqats kwe le tsmma ta qaya’ach chimiich kwe hla
So one day he took his fish pole and went to North Fork Siuslaw
K’e kwe tech
He was (it seems) without clothes
Tsmma tla kwe yixumx.
He was only holding a fishpole.
Kwiitlimisech kwe helaq huunatach.
So he came to the waterfall head, to a waterfall…
Ok, so the weird thing is there is no waterfall on the North Fork Siuslaw! There is also a mention of a falls at the forks of Indian Creek – another place with no falls apparent today. I think what is going on is that in the Indian languages rapids and waterfalls are both called by the same name. Why? My best guess is that from the point of view of Indian fisherman, both falls and rapids are good fishing spots – places where fish are easier to trap or spear.
And in some stories the word for ‘dam, fish weir’ (Hanis tlom, Milluk tlot, S/LU matii) is also used for waterfalls. In Annie Miner Peterson’s telling of the Five Tricksters story, the first Trickster (Coyote’s great grandfather) goes about the world making waterfalls, although Annie used the word tlot (weir, dam) rather than waterfall (so far, I have not yet found the word in Milluk for waterfall). This story episode can be found on page 187 of Coos Myth Texts, or in Jacobs notebook 96 pages 141 and 143:
wenwen dzí•ya tlə də tlət
Now he’s going to make a falls, dam
Now eh went round [the world]
Now he got as far asthe Colulmbia River
Now he made a dam/falls there
“Oh I can’t get across
qelq’el wantl dzaitst
I’ll make a bridge
So I can go across.”
So, one way waterfalls were viewed is as a natural dam, a natural weir (or, as natural as something constructed by a wiley Trickster could be, I guess, depending on your view). Also, sounds like Mrs. Peterson was describing Celilo Falls on the Columbia, once a trading center and thriving fishery. She also hints at the ‘Bridge of the Gods’ story here.
Anyway, it seems that in Hanis and Milluk (and perhaps Siuslawan) the Native words and phrases describe the topography of rivers rather differently than English. And that right there is one of the most interesting things about the richness of language!