“Potlatch house”, a PNW-ism … from Jargon?

potlatch house swinomish

Potlatch house, Swinomish (Puget Sound), Washington, 1905 (image credit: University of Washington Digital Collections)

The phrase “potlatch house” first came up for my readers and me in an article about southeast Vancouver Island. (See “The Potlatch at Sooke“).

potlatch house kwanlin dun

Nàkwät’à Kų potlatch house, Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, 2017 (image credit: Whitehorse Daily Star

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 a lot of 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 it’s Jargon, though — making the phrase mean ‘house of gifts’ — it easily fits into genuine Jargon grammar’s strong preference for Noun+Noun compounds. In that case I’d write it here in bold type as pá(t)łach-hàws. Because it would then fit the known grammatical pattern seen in several expressions such as mákuk-hàws (‘buying-house’) for ‘store, shop’ and músum-hàws (‘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.

As to whether to call this a Jargon phrase: 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.

potlatch at old man house.jpg

“Potlatch at Old Man House” by Raphael Coombs (image credit: Seattle Weekly)

But there are many more…

potlatch house mungo martin

Potlatch house built in 1953 by Kwakwaka’wakw master Mungo Martin, Victoria, BC. “Very wealthy, prominent hosts would have a longhouse specifically for potlatching and for housing guests.” (Image and quote credit: New World Encyclopedia)

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”.

potlatch house musqueam

Potlatch house, Musqueam, BC, 1942 (image credit: City of Vancouver Archives)

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…

potlatch house skagit coupeville 1899

Potlatch house, Skagit tribe, Coupeville (Puget Sound), Washington, circa 1899 (image credit: University of Washington Digital Collections)

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.

potlatch house Lummi carving 1905

Potlatch house carving, Lummi (Puget Sound), Washington, 1905 (image credit: University of Washington Digital Collections)

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.


Potlatch house totem, Saik’uz First Nation (interior BC), present day (image credit: Wikipedia)

What do you think?