Waterfalls and dams

Coyote went up the Coos River and made several small falls, everywhere he said not water enough. So he went finally to the Columbia River and made the big falls up there, he said there plenty of water. -Lottie Evanoff, 1942, in Harrington’s notes reel 24:134a

So the other day I wanted to look up the word ‘waterfall’ in Milluk. It’s a word that has already been found in wordlists for Hanis (huunat’) and Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua (huunat’a). So resolving the Milluk word for waterfall should be fairly simple, yes? There are only a handful of sources of Milluk language: J.O. Dorsey’s short wordlist of Lower Coquille dialect he got from Coquille Solomon in the 1880s, about 200 words Harry Hull St. Clair got in 1903 from George Barney near Florence, a sound recording from 1953 with sisters Daisy Codding and Lolly (Laura) Hodgkiss Metcalf, and the voluminous notes, texts and recordings Melville Jacobs got with multilingual storyteller Annie Miner Peterson (plus a little bit from recordings Enna Helms and I have made over the last two years, and that’s a work in progress). Jacobs’ and Peterson’s work account for the overwhelming bulk of Milluk. So, it ought to be straightforward to simply do a word search for “waterfall” and see if anything turns up? Well, some answers come up, but it is not straightforward.

There are two things that can make the job a little more complex – one is that translations (particularly in Jacobs, as Annie often provided rather loose translations rather than literal ones) are not always simple and direct, and another is the range of meanings a word can have. Words in one language don’t necessarily map ‘one to one’ in terms of meanings with its equivalents between languages. For example, the word nik’in in Hanis can mean tree, log, wood, lumber. So nik’in has a broader meaning than its English equivalents.

Doing a search in Annie Peterson’s Milluk texts, the word for ‘waterfall, falls’ only comes up in the English translations a few times. When it is used, it is also coupled with ‘dam’. Waterfalls and rapids were popular seasonal fishing sites (for salmon and lamprey) and often special weirs (fish dams) and trap baskets were set up in these areas. Weirs were all over the estuaries (See here for some examples of PNW weirs).

I’ve also noticed in Hanis, at least, that huunat’ doesn’t mean just waterfall but also rapids or riffles. In Hanis, weir is tl’om (tƚ’ǝm) or tl’im – a word that comes up once, so far as I can tell, in the Milluk texts. Discussions of a ‘waterfall dam’ come up in a few sentences in the Trickster narrative, which was published in “Coos Myth Texts” in 1940 by Jacobs, and his transcription begins in notebook 96, page 105. The Trickster narrative was Annie’s telling of the changes made in the world by five generations of ts’miixwon, the tricksters. The First Trickster is the one who has some struggles with fish traps.

In this example, we find the one example I have found (to date) in the Milluk texts:

Jacobs 96:105:    Gɛt’łǝ´m•ɛ•ní•we

My breakdown: qe-tl’om-eni-iiwe


My translation: He began to make a weir.

Jacobs translation: “Now he was making a fish dam.”

Then there are the examples of tlot Jacobs translates variously as ‘dam’ or ‘waterfall’:

Jacobs 96:141: kwí•-hántł-dzí•ya tłədǝtłǝt

My breakdown: kwii-hantl-dziiya tlo-do-tlot

EST-FUT-make? ART-POSS-”dam”

My translation: He will make a falls, dam

Jacobs translation: Now he’s going to make a falls, dam


Jacobs 96:141: tsú-ma•łúcidjá‘dj tsú-gwum-tłǝ´tdzÍ•ya.

My breakdown: tsu-mahluush-ijaj tsu-gwum tlot-dziiya

now Columbia.River-LOC? Now-at.that.time dam/waterfall-make?

My translation: Now he got to the Columbia River, now he made the dam/falls.

Jacobs translation: Now he got as far as the Columbia River, now he made the falls.


Jacobs 96:143: gú•s-idjáu tłǝthu•t’súwa

My breakdown: guus-ijau tlot huuts’uwa

all-where fall/dam make

My translation: Everywhere he made dams

Jacobs translation: He made dams in every stream.

So in the examples above, tlot can mean ‘waterfall’ as waterfalls can act as a sort of dam, and the Trickster was going about making these ‘dams’ in rivers.

However in the next example Jacobs translates tlot as some kind of trap, rather than a waterfall:

Jacobs 98:79: dzáitstís-hantłkwǝ´-n.tłǝ´t

fix? – FUT my-dam/falls

Jacobs translation: We’ll fix my fish trap.

But one must look at the context – at this point of the story, the Fifth Trickster is being given advice by Seagulls on how to outwit his new father-in-law, the father of Moon and Sun, when he tries to fool the Trickster and kill him. So it is possible the tlot,the ‘trap’ here is a waterfall, rather than the kind of dam or trap a human being would or could build because the Father-In-Law and Trickster are supernatural beings.

And that is all the Milluk references to something that might be ‘waterfall’ that I have found so far. And given that each appearance it is translated as a dam or trap, I am not absolutely sure if it can mean both waterfall and dam, or if it is primarily ‘waterfall’ and its secondary meaning is a dam or trap given that it is translated this way in the Trickster cycle, where the world is being built up and altered by their various adventures and misadventures.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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1 Response to Waterfalls and dams

  1. sofia cisn says:

    you are the best 100%. Love giving us your translations next to Melville’s. You are so brilliant, thank you thank you thank you. Just fascinating when you give us insight into how you see it. Besos

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