The Salish Woolly dog was an important part of Coast Salish life throughout southern Vancouver Island, the Strait of Georgia, and Washington State, as the dogs’ hair was used to weave clothing and blankets. More than just a source of textiles, the Salish(Say Leesh) Wooly dog was an important part of the family and cultural dynamic for the Coast Salish tribes.
If you had been wandering the Coast Salish territories of British Columbia some 4,000 years ago, rambling dense woodland and visiting village longhouses, you would likely have spotted a number of small, white, fluffy pooches.
Not just three or four, but packs of up to 20, their white fluff set against the flourishing green of the land like soft cumulus clouds against a clear blue sky.
The Coast Salish woolly dog was an integral part of community living for the Indigenous groups who lived throughout the province, on Vancouver Island, in the areas around Puget Sound, and along the border of Washington State.
Similar to a modern day Spitz, they were of small to medium build, with thick ivory hair, pointed ears and a question mark curled tail. Kept and bred for their lustrous coats, their fluffy fleeces were sheared like the jackets of sheep and spun with the hair of mountain goats to create wool.
With it, Coast Salish women wove blankets and clothing that would become symbols of status and wealth, items that were displayed and gifted on ceremonial occasions and passed down through generations as prized heirlooms.
Artifacts exhibited locally
Senaqwila Wyss, the Museum of North Vancouver’s cultural programmer, says the woolly dogs extinction does little in the way of diminishing its presence within Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) culture.
The pa7Pa7iḵn, literally translating to “fluffy haired dog” in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish language), is omnipresent, embedded within accounts, tales and legends that have been orally passed down through generations for thousands of years.
Traces of them can also be spotted in a limited number of paintings and photographs, where they can be found curled up on the floors of the longhouses or sitting atop the knees of proud owners in monochromatic family portraits, their cotton ball bodies bright and white like spectral figures.
Their portrayal in art and photography verifies the relationship oral tales tell of man and dog, says Wyss. An animal so highly regarded that it was fed a rich diet of salmon, both raw and cooked, and kept isolated on small islands to keep them from interbreeding with local, hunting canines.
“Yes they were a source of wool but they were so much more than that. They were great companions to us, they were members of the family,” she says, attributing the Nation’s cherishment of the dogs to their personality, not just their appearance. The Coast Salish woolly dog was calm but playful, she says, and extremely loyal.
So why did they disappear?
History books and academic papers claim the Coast Salish people abandoned their woolly dogs following the establishment of trading posts and the introduction of England’s Hudson Bay to B.C. in 1827. The arrival of the store, and in turn the arrival of sheep wool blankets that were quicker and easier to make, encouraged Coast Salish women to give up rearing their dogs and weaving their wool, eventually allowing them to interbreed.
It’s cited as the reason for the population’s decline in the 1800s and eventual demise by the early 1900s, but Wyss attests that was not the case.
“To me, the stories I had heard growing up were completely different to what I would read online, which would say the Salish Indians gave up, they didn’t want to do weaving anymore and they thought it would be easier to buy a blanket than to weave,” she says.
“This research just did not resonate with me at all in terms of how important these dogs were to Coast Salish people. It was just so shocking that these narratives were out there, diminishing our whole relationship, and the significance of the blankets and the woolly dog itself.”
Instead, Wyss says the woolly dog’s dwindling population coincided with the government’s implementation of Indian Agents, representatives hired to enforce the Indian Act on reserves.
It wasn’t unheard of for these agents to shoot the dogs on site as a form of control, she says, and the decline and extinction of the breed had actually been the direct result of colonialism, part of the wider Indigenous genocide.
Iain McKechnie, a zooarchaeologist with the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria, says attributing the breed’s extinction to something as simple as the arrival of a Hudson Bay blanket collapses and condenses what is actually a long, complicated history.
“There is a lot of written documents and information out there, there is a lot to consider, but the voices of the people who experienced the trauma of the 20th century, of the 19th century for that matter, who experienced this humongous rupture in the world, they are the ones we should be listening to,” he says.
That such tall tales are commonplace isn’t surprising to McKechnie, given he had been one of the few to convince academic circles of the dog’s existence and prevalence in the first place.
It was McKechnie who, in 2019, led a study examining thousands of mammalian dog bones collected from across the Pacific Northwest. Many of the bones had initially been thrown into the catch-all category of “canid”, but upon closer inspection McKechnie and his colleagues found that the majority of the bones had been from domestic dogs – not wolves or coyotes, as originally presumed.
Small dogs, hundreds of them, found across Coast Salish territory. It was physical evidence of a dog that some history books had practically delegated to mere myth and proves that the dogs were in fact not only kept by the people but revered.
Can we bring them back?
Since then McKechnie has been invested in extensively researching the Coast Salish woolly dog, and he is currently working alongside Wyss on a project that examines its genetic history.
He remains tight-lipped on the project’s specifics, but Wyss says looking into the dog’s genetics could potentially help bring about the cherished canine’s return.
In recent years, she says, she has been collaborating with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, currently home to the only known remaining woolly dog fleece, to explore the possibilities around selective breeding.
“It is not possible to have an exact clone,” she says, “but if you did selective breeding you could look at all the certain traits of the dog, like the fluffiness of the fur, the size, the personality traits, and it could be possible that after ten years or so of selective breeding of different dog breeds we could be looking at a dog that closely resembles it.”
With breeds that still exist that are similar in body and temperament to the woolly dog, like the Pomeranian, the Siberian Husky or the American Eskimo, curating something that is as close in nature to a breed that once existed isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
“I think that it absolutely can happen and it should happen,” remarks White-Hill, who divulges it has always been his “personal dream” to see its return.
“Bringing back a genetically identical dog might not be possible, but at the core of the issue, for us as Coast Salish community, collectively and as a community, it is our right to say what the Coast Salish woolly dog is,” he says.
“If we choose to breed and do selective breeding to bring them back or create a similar breed, that is our right to say that this is the Salish wool dog.”
White-Hill envisions a future where the woodlands of Coast Salish territory are once again littered with fluffy white clouds. Where cultural centres are common, filled with women gathering together to shoot the breeze over an afternoon of traditional, dog-wool weaving, just like they did some 4,000 years ago.
As stated in the Balto story, genetic comparisons and analysis have come a long way to help projects like this. We know they will be able to accurately represent the size, coat colours and composition of this lost breed.