“Fish house” in Heiltsuk tells us how they talked about canneries in Chinook

In the Practical Heiltsuk-English Dictionary by John Rath, there’s this word:



for a cannery.  There have certainly been canneries in that area (Bella Bella, BC).

But I have some acquaintance with the Heiltsuk language, and this word doesn’t look like it’s built of native materials, to my eyes.

Instead I think it’s Chinook Jargon:

pish house (píš-háws)

–literally “fish house” or “a building for fish”–


  • Heiltsuk “b” stands for an unaspirated “p”, the kind you hear in Spanish or French.
  • Heiltsuk doesn’t have a “sh” sound at all, so “s” is the closest you can get.
  • Heiltsuk “h” does funny things, as this sound does in most languages…we know about “H-dropping” in English!
  • “Fish house” is a usual English expression, but for eateries, not for canneries

Add that all up, and you have a good case for a Chinook Jargon term for “cannery”.

We didn’t know a Chinook word for this before!

And that’s remarkable because we know Chinook was the working language of many Northwest canneries.

I’ve not noticed it in the many Chinook dictionaries.  The quickest check you can do, looking into Sam Johnson’s 1978 dissertation in the compiled CJ vocabulary, turns up nil.  Not in the Grand Ronde dictionary either.

My work on the Indian shorthand letters from the Kamloops area has turned up references to canneries, but they’ve tended to be verbs, such as “mamuk samin”.  (You could give that a literal translation like “to work (on) fish”.  Salmon was the main product, and it was the generic word for fish in much of Jargon.)

I’ll point out, to be intellectually fair, that “fish house” could have been a pidgin English term.  There were fleeting pidgin Englishes everywhere in the Northwest until people wound up speaking something more standard.  We have so little data on those PE’s, though, that we can’t safely conclude they’re the source of this phrase.

So this Heiltsuk word is a neat example of how we can look at our region’s languages and emerge with a deeper understanding of our history of cultural contact.  The documentation of Chinook Wawa is far from completed; we’ve now added one word to what I (very nerdily) think of as the Grand Chinook Encyclopedia.