“Potlatch house”, a PNW-ism … from Jargon?
The phrase “potlatch house” first came up for my readers and me in an article about southeast Vancouver Island. (See “The Potlatch at Sooke“).
All things being equal, this might be a Chinuk Wawa phrase; it turns up only in Indigenous communities known to have a historical connection with the Jargon, from as far north as the Yukon to as far south as Puget Sound.
And both words in it are known in the Jargon.
Now, spoilsport that a linguist can be, I keep pointing out that we don’t have much if any direct proof that “potlatch” was used as a noun for a traditional Indigenous custom of feasting guests within C.W., as it is when borrowed into regional English.
If the “potlatch” in “potlatch house” is, however, more verby — making the phrase mean ‘house of giving’ — it easily fits into genuine Jargon grammar, in which case I’d write it here in bold type as pá(t)łach-háws. Because it would then fit the known grammatical pattern seen in several expressions such as mákuk-háws (‘buying-house’) for ‘store, shop’ and músum-háws (‘sleep-house’) for ‘hotel, inn’.
In favour of a view that “potlatch house” is Chinuk Wawa, too, is the use of “house” for a large building that folks don’t necessarily live in. That’s more CW than English in its semantics.
The jury’s somewhat out, then, on whether to call this a Jargon phrase. But I lean that direction.
Let’s move on.
What is a “potlatch house”? First off, it’s not always called that; in Native communities now, it’s perhaps more often spoken of as the “big house”.
Old Man House on Puget Sound was one of the most famous examples.
But there are many more…
From the abundance of evidence, this term, still used in regional and especially Indigenous people’s English, denotes what we’d now call a large event hall. Every illustration in today’s post shows you an actual place known to locals as a “potlatch house”.
A “potlatch house” has the specialized function of accommodating the numerous guests coming from far and near to a giveaway ceremony, which might go on for days, requiring not only ritual space but room for lots of people to sleep.
Some have been truly gigantic…
In the present day I have an impression that “potlatch houses” can be open for a wider range of community activities, including Christmas parties. (There’s your holiday tie-in.) I’d be grateful for feedback about this from community members.
From what I see in photos through time, a potlatch house could be more or less elaborately decorated on the outside and (perhaps more especially) on the interior, with emblems particularly meaningful to the owner and community. Again, the thoughts of community members about this would be highly appreciated.