1891, Vancouver BC: A stupid potlatch?!

Points to the Vancouver paper, for introducing its report on a Native potlatch with the culturally perceptive description that itʹs a “festival which is of a semi-religious character”.


Dick Winch is behind the child (image credit: Building Vancouver)

Demerits, however, for translating cultus potlatch as “a stupid potlatch”!

Makeup points nonetheless, because (A) ‘stupid’ is a great translation for kʰə́ltəs, and (B) this potlatch was hosted by a Settler, who really tried although he didn’t manage to follow all of the protocols.

Dick Winch from Cobourg, Ontario, arrived in Vancouver in 1886, and was a greengrocer there in 1891.

Here, he’s wisely throwing a giveaway for his Native customer base, but he find he has to pester those attending in order to get them to dance:


At the enterance [sic] of the party the hum of the crowd ceased and a sound like ahah echoed round the room almost immediately after several dozen voices shouted “Dick Winch [Richard Vance Winch, 20 March 1862-1952], nika kumtuks Dick Winch.” The boxes were placed on the floor and opened amid exclamations from the klootchmans of “Hyas muck-a-muck” (plenty to eat)…

Winch then tackled Chief George and talked Chinook to him like a Dutch uncle. The tawny chief, however, said that they could not put themselves about to please whitemen. Winch replied “nika potlatch muck-a-muck, nika potlatch chickamin; halo dance; cultus potlatch” (we have given you food, we offer you money and yet you wont [sic] dance; this is a stupid potlatch.)

— from “A Potlatch: The Capilano Indians Have a Hyiu Time in the Park”, in the Vancouver (BC) Daily News Advertiser of January 15, 1891, page 1, columns 1-2

Check out how the article’s headline is one of the very earliest to use Chinuk Wawa háyú ‘plenty’ in local English as ‘big; wonderful’!

Quick points about the quoted Chinook Jargon:

The klootchmans’ expression, hyas muck-a-muck, would actually mean ‘a big feed’. But the reporter could have been a partially fluent CJ speaker, erroneously recording háyú mə́kʰmək ‘lots of food’ this way.

Nika potlatch muck-a-muck, nika potlatch chickamin; halo dance; cultus potlatch would mean ‘I’m giving away food, I’m giving away money; there’s no dancing; [come on, man,] it’s a free giveaway’. It’s very doubtful that Winch was calling his own party a ‘stupid potlatch’, and the phrase cultus potlatch was extremely frequent in the meaning of anything from ‘a gift’ to ‘a Native potlatch ceremony’.

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