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.



About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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