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A Breed Apart: What was the Coast Salish woolly dog, and can we bring it back?

Treasured among various First Nations communities, the Coast Salish woolly dog was more than your average pet hound

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, flocculent 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

Now, some 4,000 years later, the Coast Salish woolly dog has ceased to exist and those blankets and robes are all that remain, the final relics of a treasured breed scattered across museums around the world.

This month, the Museum of North Vancouver opened an exhibition that is a requiem for the woolly dog, comprising two, rare, ceremonial robes woven with its fur. One, from the collection of Indigenous activist Maisie Hurley, has been in MONOVA’s archives for years, while the other is on loan from Vancouver-based artist and textile collector Terrence Loychuk.

Also on display are a number of contemporary artworks from various First Nations artists, who each pay homage to the dog by diving into the significance it holds within their own communities.

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.

Embedded within Indigenous culture 

Wyss quotes influential Squamish Chief Louis Miranda, who once explained the dog’s value by describing how in emergency situations, a house fire or a reason a family would have to flee their home, a woman would grab her child first, and her woolly dog second.

Eliot White-Hill, who will be showcasing his fine art and printwork as part of MONOVA’s exhibition, comes from the Snuneyumxw First Nation in Nanaimo. He says has been hearing stories about the Coast Salish woolly dog ever since he was a child.

He describes one in particular that sounds like fantasy fodder: A tale of a small island just off the coast that was like a dog sanctuary, littered with white, woolly editions of man’s best friend. Cameron Island translates to Solexwel in Snuneyumxw language, literally meaning ‘little wool dogs’, White-Hill says, and had been one of the designated homes for the animals to keep them from mixing with the more undesirable breeds.

“Knowing that the people and my ancestors in Solexwel had access to wool dogs in that way speaks to the wealth that the village had, and how rich we were in that way. They had an entire island just for their dogs, and they had that access to the wool from them, which was a really significant economic resource,” he says, explaining how Coast Salish blankets woven from their fur had been “like currency” for First Nations' communities.

“They were prized belongings, dogs that were passed down matrilineally that were just really, really highly regarded.”

Legends, myths and tales which centre around the “cheeky” nature of the Coast Salish dogs were equally as rife, he says, their mischievous and loyal nature making them prime candidates for any hero or heroine character.

A history untold 

And yet in various academic sources mention of the Coast Salish woolly dog is scant, and on the rare occasion the breed is mentioned its depiction is a far cry to the picture painted by the likes of Wyss and White-Hill.

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.

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.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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