“Potlatch” is not Chinook for “potlatch”

This post is a polemical claim, a challenge to my readers.


What do you call this?!  (Note caption.)

The realization has been building in my mind for years…Iʹm none too sure Iʹve ever seen potlatch used in Chinook Jargon to mean “a potlatch”.

By “a potlatch” I obviously mean a use of this word as a noun.  Well now, you may say, we know that potlatch has always been in frequent use as a noun; just look:


Samuel V Johnson is helpful as always; his 1978 dissertation lists many classic Jargon sources for potlatch, all of which define it as either “give” or “gift”, or both.

But I’m talking about the separate, particular sense of potlatch as an event: “a giveaway; a feast”.  And that’s a different animal.

The only form I’m sure of having seen this notion expressed in is makmak.  (That’s the Kamloops Wawa spelling of “muck-a-muck”.)  Here is an example, or several, from Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast:

Iht taii malii iaka

tanas, kakwa iaka tiki patlach iht makmak kopa iaka

tilikom.  Iaka mamuk ridi iaka makmak pi iaka mash

ayu iaka tanas man kopa iaka tilikom pus hol

klaska kopa makmak.  […]  

Naika makmak iaka ridi alta.

[…] Nanich lili ridi naika makmak pi

ukuk tilikom naika tiki hol kopa makmak klaska chako

piltin […] 

Ayu naika makmak ridi

[…] Klaska

wiht klatwa kopa oihat pus tlap ayu tilikom

pi lolo klaska kopa taii iaka makmak[…]

(Kamloops Wawa #136, January 1896, page 19)

SV Johnson implicitly supports my view by glossing this word as a noun “bite; food; meal; feast” (page 310), although he doesn’t show any classic sources having glossed it in the latter sense.  For “give away” he only has mash, a verb.  His only entry with “feast” is the Catholic term “feast day”, aias son (literally “big day”) from Kamloops.

The unpublished huge dictionary by Father St Onge, who knew his stuff quite well, has for “feast” both lapola (“roast”) and aias-mokamok (“big feed”).

Now, you can also argue that I myself have shown potlatch being used as a noun for a “feast; celebration”.  You may remember my recent post “Tilikums Ikt Potlatch” (The Friends’ First Festival).

So I’ll clarify that I’m talking about what I consider “actual”, spontaneous Chinuk Wawa.  Sure, English-speakers started using potlatch to mean a celebration … AFTER the word got loaned into English!  (Which may have been around 1870 or 1874.)  That’s when you start finding it in nonspontaneous, written special-use Jargon texts like the party invitation shown in the Tilikums Ikt Potlatch article.

I’m throwing down the gauntlet:  Show me such a real-world use of potlatch in Chinuk Wawa meaning a ceremonial event, and I’ll let you write the guest post here about it.  (And I’ll publicly admit I was wrong.)  

Jedd, who is excellently informed, took my challenge the other day, pointing out an audio recording of an elder using potlatch in defining a Lower Chehalis word for a ceremonial feast/giveaway.  I received that information with skepticism, noting that the elder wasn’t explicitly talking about what such an event is called in Jargon.

Any more comers?

Make me makmak crow! 🙂