Potlatch lamala, at White Bluffs on the Columbia, really?
In the Nakusp (BC) Ledge, September 12, 1895, a leisurely installment of “Odd Talks with Old-Timers” hears out an unnamed Cariboo pioneer, possibly the newspaper’s editor. This old codger of a first-person narrator recalls Chinook Wawa conversations of interest, and they include one word, underlined below, that surprised me.
Harking back to 1862, the writer tells how ridiculously expensive lodging and everything else was in Victoria, which led him to winter in Portland instead. An anecdote of “Aunt” Rebecca’s lodging house in Olympia is spiced with a remembered song about her. This leads in to the tale of a mildly disaster-prone stagecoach ride, with “Capt. Murray and Mike Brown” (this Captain Murray? and Michael Costin Brown?), to Portland via “Montabella”. (Surely that’s Monticello, in the lower Cowlitz River region of Washington Territory, one of our oldest towns.)
There they met up with an old friend, General [Joel] Palmer, who is well known in the Chinook Jargon sphere, and decided to mount up a pack train to Cariboo. We’re told that this was considered idiocy because so many prospectors had returned unsuccessful from BC; Idaho was the current rage.
“We came in by the Dalles” presumably by boat, and followed an Indian trail to the White Bluffs on the Columbia River, which at that time was a brand-new tiny white settlement but home to 300 Native people [Wanapums]. The narrator’s party was intimidated by the forceful approach of the local chief and several warriors on horseback:
As a party we were as weak in the native classics as we were in the knees just then. A few words of Chinook and my vocabulary was exhausted. When the chief asked for potlatch (to give) lamala (bottle) or chickamin (money) I gave him klahowya tillicum (welcome friend), which I thought was as much as to say “Good morrow, chief.” He did not however take my interpretation. We gave them some tobacco, tea, sugar, etc., and also to understand that the boss, General Palmer, was on the road after us and would be with the chief in a few days. The old fellow could speak English very well as I soon found out. He knew the General, and the statement–an untrue one–that he was following us up with another train no doubt saved us.
Let me focus on two points of language contact here.
- The chief “could speak English very well as I soon found out”: You have to mentally balance the radically conflicting claims of frontier-era witnesses about Native people’s behavior. Had the chief been instead intentionally trying to speak English, these white fellas most likely would’ve evaluated his foreigner use of their language negatively. Having read hundreds of sources from that time period, I sincerely estimate that 90% of whites never gave Indians a break, in the sense of taking their attempts at communication seriously.
- lamala: This is a Salish word. Salish borrowed Chinook Wawa “lam” (alcohol” and added the suffix -ala “container” to make a word for “bottle”. The Wanapums aren’t Salish. They speak an unrelated, Sahaptian, language. Where did this “lamala” come from?
- On the coast, the Central Salish languages throw a prefix onto this word: Tim Montler has it as šxʷ-ləm-elə in Saanich, spoken just north of Victoria, BC. Brent Galloway shows š-ləm-élə in Samish, spoken near Bellingham, WA. taqʷšəblu Vi Hilbert et al. have xʷ-láb-əli. Interior Salish languages…? Aert Kuipers, in a moment of intentional hilarity, lists “*lam” as a proto-Coast-Salish-Lillooet-Thompson root. For Lillooet, an Interior Salish language that borders Coast Salish,van Eijk has s-ləm-ála, which would be pronounced much like the Coast words: š-ləm-ála.
- As for the rest of I.S., dictionaries of Thompson River Salish and Shuswap make it seem as if Jargon leputéy, literally “bottle”, had been borrowed instead.
- We may consider whether borrowing of “lam” into I.S. was made difficult by the presence of the native root “lem”/”lam” meaning approximately “to be comforted, pleased, happy”. The devil’s advocate requests that I point out that Interior speakers might accordingly have interpreted lamala as “the container of happiness”!
- The Interior Salish languages in general show plenty of loans directly from Canadian French rather than from the Jargon. They’re words that are morphologically similar to the ones that wound up in Jargon, for example having only l- definite articles fused to them and never e.g. d- indefinite ones. Canadian fur-trade employees resided in Interior Salish areas and married into local cultures before the Jargon existed.
- The “Tsamosan” Salish languages of southwest Washington have their own native words for “bottle”. You may have seen them: some got borrowed into early Jargon as lawulich and so forth. I suspect that this “law-” element could be from Jargon “lam”, but at any rate these words aren’t a believable source for lamala.
- Upshot: I take lamala to be a Central (Coast) Salish word in Jargon, maybe one of the few from “Nisqually” (southern dialect of Lushootseed). It’s known that Southern Lushootseed speakers had plenty of contact aboriginally with Sahaptian speakers just across the Cascade mountains. That contact continued after Europeans showed up, and we know of Nisquallies evidently speaking Jargon with Sahaptians, for example Chief Leschi in the mid-1850s. Since I’m not managing to find lamala in any white folks’ Jargon–I looked in Sam Johnson’s dissertation–I’m thinking that this word diffused from the coast by Native-to-Native contact, a mechanism that the brilliant Sarah Grey Thomason has pointed out as having been powerful in the spread of Chinook Jargon.
I’d like to add a postscript about another of the several words for “bottle” in Jargon: Sam Johnson’s dissertation lists a synonym “kottle” from J.B. Good’s 1880 Thompson Salish/Chinook Jargon word list. Sometimes Jargon or English words got a bit twisted by Interior Salish speakers, as with “pashem” for “wash ’em” in York and Laforet’s book “Spuzzum”, and as with Kamloops-area writers of Jargon frequently spelling the word for “to know” as “komtakst”. But I’ve just found this item on page 28 of Good’s book (a pun, he was a missionary), and it’s clearly “kettle”. (FYI, in one of his Thompson-language pages , “vessel (cup)” is given as “kup”, which is Jargon too; I’ve seen it from Kamloops. There is plenty of good info on late 19th-century local Jargon use in Good’s Thompson vocabulary as well as in his Jargon word list.)