BC Chinook discovery: “másháchi-bòks”
A.k.a. “mesahchie box” / “mesatchie box” / “mesachie box”; I thought I’d discussed this phrase before, but this is my first mention of this discovery on this site.
“Boks” was certainly a BC Chinook Jargon word; this Saturday I gave an online class showing it in use over a span of years.
The older/southern-dialect synonym lákʰasét is, I’ve found, rare in the northern range of Jargon-speaking territory. This, despite the continuing presence of French-speaking Métis families in the province, some of whom spoke Chinuk Wawa as well.
Másháchi-bòks (or másháchi-bàks) was a typical CW compound, which is to tell you that it’s composed of a Noun + a Noun.
The first Nóun here functions as a descriptor of the second Nòun, which is the “head” or the main point of the phrase.
Thus, we have másháchi in one of its frequent usages, as a noun meaning ‘evil or dangerous (or violent or mean) things’; the entire phrase is literally ‘a box of evil or dangerous things’.
These semantics will be borne out by what you’ll be reading below.
Just to reinforce my point from another angle, what we don’t have here is *másháchi bóks (or *másháchi báks), which would be a sequence of an Ádjective + a Nóun — which would have meant an ‘evil or dangerous box’.
See the difference?
Well, let’s look at a few examples documenting this phrase in use, to show you what a másháchi is…
Here’s someone referring to the published traditional knowledge of a Nuxalk Nation (“Bella Coola”) tribal elder who lived from 1910 to 1993:
My source is a section of Clayton Mack’s book “Bella Coola Man” called the Mesachie Box, describing black magic, in particular, a hamatsa (cannibal) dance in which a dead woman’s head was dug out of a fresh grave and eaten by some shamen; also other black magic and bad occurrences from Nuxalk and his own personal history.
(I don’t have access to a copy of that book yet, but a “snippet result” in Google Books search confirms that the phrase is used in it.)
And here, from 1918, found in the publication of one woman’s letters about her own experiences in Kitamaat, Haisla territory, in the same central coastal region of British Columbia:
Have I ever explained the mesachie box to you? These people hold a belief that a piece of personal clothing or hair or any personal belonging of any person, if it be buried with a dead person will result in that person’s (the owner of such article) being drawn to the grave. Perhaps you have read stories having that belief as a basis.
When the Rosses were preparing Mary Elliott for the coffin, something was needed to cover her face. I fetched a nice silk handkerchief which had perhaps been washed once, at any rate, it looked new, but they would not use it after asking “is it your own?” I, at the moment, only thought it was not good enough but it was a case of mesachie. I brought a piece of new silk & that was used because no one had ever worn it.
Dr. George E. Darby (right), author of our next quotation (image source: Up and Down the Coast)
Here’s a section of an academic paper published in 1933 by a physician stationed at Bella Bella, BC (Heiltsuk tribal territory; same region again). I’m disturbed and amused that a mesatchie box would be owned by a Christian minister…
The chiefs had more or less power over the medicine-men, and if they were jealous of any one they would get the medicine man to put the victim out of the way. The usual way of doing this was to bewitch him with an evil or “mesatchie box“. These are very rare, and the one I show you now belongs to Rev. Mr. [George] Raley. [No illustration actually appears in the article.] Their faith in the power of a person who can use one of these boxes is still very strong, and nothing causes more excitement around an Indian village than for a report to get out that someone has a mesatchie box. The usual procedure is to gather some things that have been in intimate contact with the person of the victim, such as hair combings, a handkerchief, spittle, a neck band from a shirt,etc., and to place the things in the box which is then hidden out in the woods. Word is passed around that a mesatchie box is out for a certain person…Just this spring, a young man…with tuberculosis…contracted influenza and…told me that his uncle had…advised him to sell his boat so that he could get the good of the money. There was no chance of his recovery for a mesatchie box had been put out for him.
The above data, from 3 different ethnic groups’ lands, show that másháchi-bòks was an established term on BC’s central coast in first half of the 20th century. I’ve not found it in other parts of BC, nor in US territory.
Less useful to us linguistically, but kind of entertaining, are a couple of fictional uses of the term. Here’s its occurrence in connection with a BC Native-themed light opera in the 1950s:
The libretto clearly characterizes the Shaman not as a respected religious leader but as a purveyor of evil fakery. A note on the original 1954 playbill offers this “ethnographic” detail:
A Mesachie Box is a small box generally made of cedar, used by the Medicine Man in his practice of Shamanism, the malevolent rites in casting magic spells. The natives believed if the Medicine Man had something belonging to them and more especially something from their person, such as a hair or a drop of blood in his Mesachie Box, death was inevitable and they would simply sicken and die.
(Image credit: Living Library)
And here’s a little passage from Bruce A. McKelvie’s 1926 novel “Huldowget: A Tale of the North Pacific Coast“:
Directly in front of her on the little pathway was a small oblong cedar box. For a full minute she stood staring at it, her face ashen grey. Finally she summoned courage enough to stoop and lift the lid. Her jaw dropped, and she clutched at her breast, as she gazed in horror at a small doll, crudely fashioned out of the skin of some animal. Through the heart of the image was thrust a fish bone.
“A mesahchie box!” she whispered hoarsely. “A mesahchie box! It’s the threat of death”; and she started to cry.
Add this phrase to your Chinook Jargon dictionaries!