The Potlatch at Sooke

Chinook Jargon is candidly used for local colour in this touristy 1907 eyewitness piece…

…but it’s got some real value, as do many of the factual details here.

For instance, learning that largish locally made boats were called “Columbia River boats” in this part of British Columbia tells us a good deal about the historical connection between the two regions.

Regarding the article’s few Jargon words, I’d advise skepticism about the phrase < chah-co potlatch > as used below; it ought to mean ‘come (and) give’, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect an invitation to this event to say. An alternative way to analyze the grammar of < chah-co potlatch > is with my favourite device, a “null” — here a non-pronounced preposition, therefore meaning ‘come to the potlatch’. My personal difficulty in accepting such a view is that I have yet to find solid proof that ‘potlatch’ was a noun in Chinuk Wawa, even though it became one in English. (See ” ‘Potlatch’ is Not Chinook for ‘Potlatch’ “.)

There’s also the expression “Potlatch House”, not previously documented in Chinook Jargon. By extension of what I was just saying, I have doubts that this phrase was CJ, even though ‘house’ (háws) surely is. However, as a Pacific Northwest English idiom using a CJ loan word, “potlatch house” holds real interest, and I’ll be writing about its history here soon.

Onward to the full article.

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The Potlatch at Sooke

By Bonnycastle Dale.

Photographs by Edward Milne and the Author.

FOR many months one family of the men of this reservation had toiled at the great fir wood, cedar “shake” covered building, a building large enough to hold the two hundred expected guests.

Then the invitations had gone forth — to the tribes in Washington, to the Niti-
nats, to the West Coast, to the San Juan, to the Victoria Indians, to come “Chah-co Potlatch,” for “Andrew’s” daughter’s birthday. With true Indian lavishness and prodigality he gave this wide invitation, a mighty feast, a week long, that would impoverish the giver if the ancient custom of handing all one has over to the next fellow is faithfully followed.

How times are changing. The West Coast Indians arrived in the natural harbour of Sooke, on Vancouver Island, sweeping in like some flock of great white-winged birds — but not in the long war canoes, no, they came in large open sailboats, called Columbia River boats


(actually made by the clever Japanese shipwrights on the Fraser). Then with sails lowered, hulls lashed together, they slowly approached the Sooke River, singing in dull monotone a “Wah-hoo” — a song of the old people or times. Among the great red rocky mountains that surround Sooke the weird dull chorus echoed, the lashed flotilla crept on. In the center boat a chief stood waving Chack-chack” (eagle) tails, swinging his arms to the time of the rude tune. In all the boats the men beat on improvised instruments, pans, paddles beaten on boards, clubs monotonously thumped into tubs. The entire song was of bass notes, not once did we hear the treble of the klooch-men (women).

Stout Andrew stood on the river band near the Potlatch House, from a tiny cannon a loud welcome sped forth. Then a spokesman of the visitors gave forth a speech in the old native tongue — not in the Chinook jargon from which I quote. Now all the wide white boats — painted a bright blue inside — with their orange gunwales — some had red sails and strangely carved bits on the masthead — slip into the bank edge. No effusive welcome and handshaking, each knows he is welcome to all that his host owns. Some camp in their boats, others erect canvas covers, bringing big armfuls of dried salmon, great tub of “octopus” — the devil-fish, well stewed it is a much esteemed delicacy here, great baskets of salmon heads. A huge iron cauldron is filled with rice, many round flat loaves of bread are baked. On the earth, in the center of the Potlatch house, a huge fire is kindled, the smoke pours out of the openings in the “Shakes” above. On the raised platform that surrounds the entire inside, a platform covered with rush mats and matting, the guests are soon squatted and happily at home. Here one mother industriously washes her little dusky lad’s face, pouring the water into her open palm by way of a basin; another spreads her blankets and dozes away, the men squat in chatting groups — all at home at once. Not an unkind word, not a drop of liquor. Many of the guests bring food and pile it together, boxes of pilot bread, fish, vegetables, grain, seeming to vie with the host in


generosity. Two young steers are killed, and a great feast and dancing takes place.

Like an ancient rite a procession entered the Potlatch house, West Coast men leading a calf, a pig, a cow, others carrying huge baskets of glassware, heaped arms full of calicoes, two hammerless shot guns, clocks, bureaus, great piles of plates, bix [sic] boxes of crockery, revolvers, field glasses, their potlatch or gift. The squatted crowd were divided, men to the left, kloochmen to the right.

Now an old chief harangues them in their tribal tongue. The large skin-covered hoops are beaten, and the dancers in two long lines sway their bodies and wave their arms in time to the rude deep voiced song all the braves are singing. Now lithe kloochmen glide among the dancers and the young men whirl about in a very abandon of high spirits — silence — then a shrill-voiced kloochman calls a few native words in sharp squealing notes — she has lately lost her brave in the seal fisheries, where so many a dusky Siawash [sic] has gone before and she offers as her potlatch gift much money, to some three dollars, to others two, to the balance of the braves a dollar — again ths weird music and song goes on. Now the cattle and the dishes, the clocks, guns, everything are given away with a royal disregard for the morrow — again the barbaric tune rolls on — now a sick kloochman from her place, as she reclines on the platform, gives ten dollars a piece to many of the men. Hands are waved, wild dancing, piercing cries from old haggard women — in the silence that issues, a mere boy, a shy lad, drags out a handful of silver and bills, and while an old chief calls out the name of the one for whom the gift is intended the giver breaks out in pitiful sobbing. The spirit of kindness that animates these rude people is more than skin deep. Andrew, the giver of the Potlatch, distributes five hundred dollars among the men. (I would like to see a white man give money away in this style, and not be mobbed). Here each takes it with downcast eye, hardly ever giving way so far as to utter thanks. Now all the


kloochmen gather together their many presents and silently file out. Night falls and around a huge fire, built on the earthen floor, the dance goes on, until every Indian and kloochman alike are one writhing, perspiring mass. The older women yell and beat time, the tribes mingle in their mystic dance, and as we walk home beneath the tall fir trees we can hear the same songs that echoed here before George Vancouver sailed up the dim distant Straits of Juan de Fuca.

Before the week long weird ceremonies were over the excitement ran high, very secret were the meetings, rude and painful some of the ordeals that were held in that big Potlatch House, the dancing and monotonous sing-song seemed never-ending. We watched it with intense interest, but as they asked me not to picture them, we were their guests, we can only attempt to describe it.

Then early one morning we saw the white-winged fleet sweep past bound for the distant canneries on the Fraser; here they will labour until the salmon run is over. Methinks Andrew had better get up early and start to labour too, for this giver of the potlatch distributed all his money — some thousands of dollars, his guns, furniture, his all — to this dusky crew that so silently embarked and sped away, but he, according to rude rules that guide these remnants of once powerful tribes, is now a big chief among his people. The little “rancherie” (as they call a reservation out here) is deserted. The banks of the Sooke no longer echo with the everlasting “Wah-hoo,” so we picture the last and only full-blood survivor of the tribe that was so strong only three score years ago when the first white man settled here, a poor old withered kloochman, whose only word of British, as she pointed to me was — “King George Man.”

— by Bonnycastle Dale (Westward Ho!/British Columbia Magazine, September 1907, pages 16-19)

What have you learned?