‘The country of the dead’ in Chinuk Wawa
Additional precious information from George Gibbs’s 1877 ethnography of “Tribes of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon“…
Apparently you can RV-camp at Memaloose State Park in Oregon (image credit: Wikipedia)
He relays information from tribal people about “the country of the dead”, after quoting from Lewis and Clark(e) about burial customs:
Another depository of this kind, upon an island in the river a few miles above, gave it the name of Sepulcher Island. The Watlala, a tribe of the Upper Tsinūk, whose burial place is here described, are now nearly extinct; but a number of the sepulchers still remain in different states of preservation. The position of the body, as noticed by Clarke, is I believe of universal observance, the head being always placed to the west. The reason assigned to me is that the road to the mé-mel-ūs-illa-hee, the country of the dead, is toward the west, and if they place them otherwise they would be confused.
— page 201
This phrase mé-mel-ūs-illa-hee (míməlust-íliʔi ‘dead.people’s country’) deserves special focus today.
It’s universally known in all documented Chinuk Wawa dialects, but with a more acculturated meaning of ‘cemetery’. That is, it refers to designated burial places, which are an ancient Native custom, and the phrase seems as it it’s a calque on the expressions in Indigenous languages. But míməlust-íliʔi was always used by Settlers as well, for Euro-American style graveyards.
What’s really notable here is that Gibbs is supplying us with documentation of the Native CW expression for ‘the land of the dead’, a feature of traditional religion. It’s a synonym of polaklie illahee (literally ‘the night country; the dark country’).
And he’s overtly connecting this “memaloose illahee“ concept with the West. We’ve previously come across indications that Indigenous folks were leery of being moved to Indian reservations in the western part of Washington State…