Coast Salish peoples

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Coast Salish peoples are a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, living in British Columbia, Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the United States. They speak one of the Coast Salish languages. Nuxalk (Bella Coola) nation are usually included in the group, although their language is more closely related to Interior Salish languages.

The Coast Salish are a loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples spans from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island and covering most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland and most of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula (except for territories of now-extinct Chemakum people). Their traditional territories coincide with modern major metropolitan areas, namely Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle. The Tillamook or Nehalem around Tillamook, Oregon are the southernmost of the Coast Salish peoples.

The Coast Salish cultures differ considerably from those of their northern neighbours. It is one of the few indigenous cultures along the coast with a patrilineal rather than matrilineal kinship system, with inheritance and descent passed through the male line. According to a 2013 estimate, the population of Coast Salish numbers at least 56,590 people, made up of 28,406 Status Indians registered to Coast Salish bands in British Columbia, and 28,284 enrolled members of federally recognized Coast Salish tribes in Washington state.

The peoples

Below is a list of some, but not all, of the tribes and nations located in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

Historical timeline

The following is a provisional list of historical events, primarily from a United States perspective. Coast Salish peoples in British Columbia have had similar economic experience, although their political and treaty experience has been different—occasionally dramatically so:

  • c. 3000 BCE: Evidence of established settlement at Xa:ytem (Hatzic Rock) near Mission, British Columbia[1]
  • c. 2000 BCE – 450 CE: Early occupancy of c̓əsnaʔəm (Marpole Midden), lasting at least until around the late 1800s CE, when smallpox and other diseases affected the inhabitants[2][3]
  • 6th century CE: Prominent villages along the Duwamish River estuary. These remained continuously inhabited until sometime in the later 18th century.[4]
  • 15th century: Construction of boulder walls for defensive and other purposes along the Fraser Canyon[5]
  • 1791: contact by the Spanish with several groups during their charting of the Georgia Strait area e.g. the Snokomish
  • 1792: Brief contact with the Vancouver expedition by the Squamish people and others.
  • 1808: Simon Fraser of the North West Company enters Coast Salish territories via the Fraser Canyon and meets various groups until reaching tidewater on the Fraser's North Arm, where he is attacked and repelled by Musqueam warriors.
  • 1810s: Coastal fur trade with infrequent ships extends south from farther north.
  • 1810s through 1850s: raiding by northern peoples, esp Euclataws and Haida, of Georgia Strait-Puget Sound the Salish peoples.
  • 1824: John Work and party of the HBC traveled the length of the central and south Georgia Strait-Puget Sound.
  • 1827: HBC Fort Langley established east of present-day Vancouver, B.C. Whattlekainum, principal chief of the Kwantlen people, moves most of his people from Qiqayt (Brownsville) across the river from what was to become New Westminster) to Kanaka Creek, near the Fort, for security and to dominate trade with the Fort. Contact and trade began accelerating significantly, primarily with the Fraser River Salish (Sto:lo).
  • 1833: Fort Nisqually and its farm established by the Puget Sound Agricultural Company a subsidiary of the HBC, between present-day Olympia and Tacoma, Washington. Contact and trade began accelerating significantly with the southern Coast Salish. Significant social change and change in social structures accelerates with increasing contact. Initiative remained with Native traders until catastrophic population decline. Native traders and Native economy were not particularly interested or dependent upon European trade or tools. Trade goods were primarily luxuries such as trade blankets, ornamentation, guns and ammunition. The HBC monopoly did not condone alcohol, but freebooter traders were under no compunction.[6]
  • 1839–40: Catholic missionaries arrive in Puget Sound country. 1841–43: Interest diminishes. 1840–42: Methodist missionaries arrive, have no success at all.
  • 1840–on: Missionaries. In the United States, churches divided territory among themselves by the federal Peace Policy of 1869.[citation needed]
  • 1854-55: Stevens Treaties in Washington Territory. Reservations. Some tribes do not participate and others dropped out of treaty negotiations. (See, for example, Treaty of Point Elliott #Native Americans and # Non-signatory tribes.)
  • The Muckleshoot Reservation is established after the Puget Sound War of 1855–56.
  • 1850s–60s: Traditional resources are less and less available. Sawmill work and employment selling natural resources begins and continues; Native men work as loggers, in the mills, and as commercial fishers. Women sell basketry, shellfish, and make other adjustments.
  • 1850-54: the Douglas Treaties are signed on Vancouver Island between various Coast Salish peoples around Victoria and Nanaimo, and also with two Kwakwaka'wakw groups on northern Vancouver Island.
  • 1870s: Agricultural work in hopyards of the east Sound river valleys grows, even mushrooms.[7]
  • 1880s: White-Indian demographics shift dramatically. Commercial fisheries employment begins to decline significantly.
  • 1885: After legislation amending the Indian Act was passed the previous year, the potlatch is banned in Canada, effective January 1, 1885 and in the U.S. some years later.[8]
  • 1934 (U.S.), 1951 (Canada): Official suppression of the potlatch ends. Some potlatching becomes overt immediately, and a renaissance follows.[9]
  • 1960s: Renaissance of tribal culture and national civil rights engenders civil action for treaty rights.
  • 1967: Chief Dan Georges speech on what had happened to his people rivets an audience at a Canadian Centennial ceremony in Vancouver's Empire Stadium and touches off public awareness and native activism in BC, and Canada.
  • 1960s–1970s: Employment in commercial fisheries has greatly declined; employment in logging and lumber mills declines significantly with automation, outsourcing, and the decline in available resources through the 1980s.
  • 1974, Supreme Court upheld 1979: The Boldt Decision, based on the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855 restores fisheries rights to federally recognized Puget Sound tribes:

    The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.[this quote needs a citation]

    In implementation, this means half the catch, at sustainable levels by subsequent negotiations.
  • 1970s–present: Many federally recognized tribes develop some economic autonomy with (initially strongly contested) tax-free tobacco retail, development of casino gambling, fisheries and stewardship of fisheries. Extant tribes not federally recognized continue ongoing legal proceedings and cultural development toward recognition.[10] In British Columbia, 1970 marks the start of organized resistance to the "white paper" tabled by Jean Chretien, then a cabinet ministry in the government of Pierre Trudeau, which called for assimilation. In the wake of that, new terms such as Sto:lo, Shishalh and Snuneymuxw began to replace older-era names conferred by anthropologists, linguists and governments.


The first smallpox epidemic to hit the region was in the 1680s, with the disease travelling overland from Mexico by intertribal transmission.[11] Among losses due to diseases, and a series of earlier epidemics that had wiped out many peoples entirely, e.g. the Snokomish in 1850, a smallpox epidemic broke out among the Northwest tribes in 1862, killing roughly half the affected native populations, in some cases up to 90% or more. The smallpox epidemic of 1862 started when an infected miner from San Francisco stopped in Victoria on his way to the Cariboo Gold Rush.[12] As the epidemic spread, police, supported by gunboats, forced thousands of First Nations people living in encampments around Victoria to leave and many returned to their home villages which spread the epidemic. Some consider the decision to force First Nations people to leave their encampments an intentional act of genocide.[13] Mean population decline 1774–1874 was about 66%.[14] Though the Salish peoples together are less numerous than the Cherokee or Navajo, the numbers shown below represent a small fraction of the group.

  • Pre-epidemics about 12,600; Lushootseed about 11,800, Twana about 800.
  • 1850: about 5,000.
  • 1885: less than 2,000, probably not including all the off-reservation populations.
  • 1984: sum total about 18,000; Lushootseed census 15,963; Twana 1,029.[7]
  • 2013: estimate of at least 56,590, made up of 28,406 Status Indians registered to Coast Salish bands in British Columbia, and 28,284 enrolled members of Coast Salish Tribes in Washington state.


Social organization


Neighboring peoples, whether villages or adjacent tribes, were related by marriage, feasting, ceremonies, and common or shared territory. Ties were especially strong within the same waterway or watershed. There existed no breaks throughout the south Coast Salish culture area and beyond. There existed no formal political institutions.[15]

External relations were extensive throughout most of the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin and east to the Sahaptin-speaking lands of Chelan, Kittitas and Yakama in what is now Eastern Washington. Similarly in Canada there were ties between the Skwxwumesh and Sto:lo with Interior Salish neighbours, i.e. the Lil'wat/St'at'imc, Nlaka'pamux and Syilx.

There was little political organization.[16] No formal political office existed. Warfare for the southern Coast Salish was primarily defensive, with occasional raiding into territory where there were no relatives. No institutions existed for mobilizing or maintaining a standing force.

The common enemies of all the Coast Salish for most of the first half of the 19th century were the Lekwiltok aka Southern Kwakiutl, commonly known in historical writings as the Euclataws or Yucultas. Regular raids by northern tribes, particularly an alliance between the Haida, Tongass, and one group of Tsimshian, are also notable. With earlier access to European guns through the fur trade, they raided for slaves and loot. Their victims organized retaliatory raids several times, attacking the Lekwiltok.[17]


The highest-ranking male assumed the role of ceremonial leader but rank could vary and was determined by different standards.[16] Villages were linked through intermarriage among members; the wife usually went to live at the husband's village. Society was divided into upper class, lower class and slaves, all largely hereditary.[16] Nobility was based on genealogy, intertribal kinship, wise use of resources, and possession of esoteric knowledge about the workings of spirits and the world — making an effective marriage of class, secular, religious, and economic power. Many Coast Salish mothers altered the appearance of their free-born by carefully shaping the heads of their babies, binding them with cradle boards just long enough to produce a steep sloping forehead.[18]

Unlike hunter-gatherer societies widespread in North America, but similar to other Pacific Northwest coastal cultures, Coast Salish society was complex, hierarchical and oriented toward property and status.

Slavery was widespread.[19] The Coast Salish held slaves as simple property and not as members of the tribe. The children of slaves were born into slavery.[20]

The staple of their diet was typically salmon, supplemented with a rich variety of other seafoods and forage. This was particularly the case for the southern Coast Salish where the climate was even more temperate.[21]

The art of the Coast Salish has been interpreted and incorporated into contemporary art in British Columbia and the Puget Sound area.[citation needed]


Games often involved gambling on a sleight-of-hand game known as slahal, as well as athletic contests. Games that are similar to modern day lacrosse, rugby and forms of martial arts also existed.[22]


Belief in guardian spirits and shape shifting, or transformation between human and animal spirits were widely shared in myriad forms. The relations of soul or souls, and conceptions of the lands of the living and the dead, were complex and mutable. Vision quest journeys involving other states of consciousness were varied and widely practiced. The Duwamish had a soul recovery and journey ceremony[17] and legends. They also had many ceremonies and celebrations.


Villages of the Coast Salish typically consisted of Western Red Cedar split plank and earthen floor longhouses providing habitation for forty or more people, usually a related extended family. Also used by many groups were pit-houses, known in the Chinook Jargon as kekuli (see Quiggly holes). The villages were typically located near navigable water for easy transportation by dugout canoe. Houses that were part of the same village sometimes stretched for several miles along a river or watercourse.

The interior walls of longhouses were typically lined with sleeping platforms. Storage shelves above the platforms held baskets, tools, clothing, and other items. Firewood was stored below the platforms. Mattresses and cushions were constructed woven reed mats and animals skins. Food was hung to dry from the ceiling. The larger houses included partitions to separate families, as well as interior fires with roof slats that functioned as chimneys.[citation needed]

The wealthy built extraordinarily large longhouses. The Suquamish Oleman House (Old Man House) at what became the Port Madison Reservation was 152 x 12–18 m (500 x 40–60 ft), c. 1850. The gambrel roof was unique to Puget Sound Coast Salish.[23]

The Salish later took to constructing rock walls at strategic points near the Fraser River Canyon, along the Fraser River. These Salish Defensive Sites are rock wall features constructed by Coast Salish peoples.[24] One was excavated by Kisha Supernant in 2008 at Yale, British Columbia.[25] The functions of these features may have included defense, fishing platforms, and creation of house terraces. House pits and stone tools have been found in association with certain sites. Methods used include use of a total station for mapping the sites as well as the creation of simple test pits to probe for stratigraphy and artifacts.


Provisionally, this is primarily southern Coast Salish, though much is in common with Coast Salish overall.

Anthropogenic grasslands were maintained. The south Coast Salish may have had more vegetables and land game than people farther north or among other peoples on the outer coast. Salmon and other fish were staples; see Coast Salish people and salmon. There was kakanee, a freshwater fish in the Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish watersheds. Shellfish were abundant. Butter clams, horse clams, and cockles were dried for trade.

Hunting was specialized; professions were probably sea hunters, land hunters, fowlers. Water fowl were captured on moonless nights using strategic flares.

The managed grasslands not only provided game habitat, but vegetable sprouts, roots, bulbs, berries, and nuts were foraged from them as well as found wild. The most important were probably bracken and camas; wapato especially for the Duwamish. Many, many varieties of berries were foraged; some were harvested with comblike devices not reportedly used elsewhere. Acorns were relished but were not widely available. Regional tribes went in autumn to the Nisqually Flats (Nisqually plains) to harvest them.[21]

In literature

Victoria, British Columbia author Stanley Evans has written a series of mysteries featuring a Coast Salish character, Silas Seaweed, from the fictitious "Mohawt Bay Band," who works as an investigator with the Victoria Police Department.[26]

See also


  1. "Xá:ytem / Hatzic Rock National Historic Site of Canada". Canada's Historic Places. Parks Canada. Retrieved 22 April 2015. The closely associated habitation site is one of the oldest discovered (ca. 5000 years).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "C̓ƏSNAʔƏM". Musqueam: A Living Culture. Musqueam Indian Band. c̓əsnaʔəm (commonly known as the Eburne Site, Marpole Midden or Great Fraser Midden), located in the heart of Musqueam’s Traditional and unceded Territory, is an ancient village and burial site of the Musqueam people, dating back at least 4,000 years. In the late 1700s and 1800s, smallpox and other diseases arrived on the Northwest Coast and affected our people at c̓əsnaʔəm.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Marpole Midden National Historic Site of Canada". Parks Canada. The culture evidenced here was present in the Fraser Delta from about 400 BC to AD 450.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Dailey, map icon 33, Dailey reference 2, 9, 10.
  5. "Landscapes of Conflict: The Rise of Defensive Sites among the Coast Salish Kisha Supernant, unpublished dissertation", 2008
  6. (1) Suttles & Lane (1990) p. 489
    (2) Although Hudson's Bay and Pendleton blankets have retained a widely renowned cachet to the present day.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Suttles & Lane (1990), pp. 499–500
  8. Confiscation An Incident in History
  9. Cole & Chaikin (1990)
  10. See also Treaty of Point Elliott #Context and, for example, Duwamish (tribe) #Recent history
  11. [The Resettlement of British Columbia, Cole Harris, UBC]
  12. [1]
  13. [2]
  14. (1) Lange, Essay 5171)
    (2) Boyd (1999)
    (2.1) A smallpox vaccine was discovered in 1801. Russian Orthodox missionaries were an exception to general policy and vaccinated at-risk Native populations in what is now SE Alaska and NW British Columbia. [Boyd]
  15. Suttles, Wayne P.; Lane, Barbara (1990). "South Coast Salish". In Sturtevant, William C. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 7, Northwest coast. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 486–7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "The people and their land". "Puget Sound Native Art and Culture". Seattle Art Museum. 2003-07-04. per "Native Art of the Northwest Coast: Collection Insight". Retrieved 2006-04-21. Check date values in: |year= / |date= mismatch (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  17. 17.0 17.1 Suttles & Lane (1990), pp. 495–7
  18. Miller (1996)
  19. Donald (1997)
  20. Haeberlin, Hermann (1942). The Indians of Puget Sound (PDF). University of Washington Press. p. 57.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 Suttles & Lane (1990), pp. 488–9
  22. Pathways of the Past: A look at the history and organization of the Squamishie people. Community archive of the Sḵwxwú7mesh Pg. 4
  23. Suttles & Lane (1990), p. 491
  24. Schaepe, D. (2006) Rock fortifications : Archaeological insights into precontact warfare and sociopolitical organization among the Stó :lō of the Lower Fraser River Canyon, B.C. American Antiquity 71(4): 671-706.
  25. 'Quantifying Defensiveness at Defended Sites on the Northwest Coast'. (unpublished)
  26. "Seaweed on the Rocks by Stanley Evans, a Mysterious Review". Retrieved 2013-04-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Amoss, Pamela. Coast Salish Spirit Dancing: The Survival of an Ancestral Religion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978. ISBN 0-295-95586-4
  • Blanchard, Rebecca, and Nancy Davenport. Contemporary Coast Salish Art. Seattle: Stonington Gallery, 2005.
  • Porter, Frank W. The Coast Salish Peoples. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989. ISBN 1-55546-701-6
  • Pugh, Ellen, and Laszlo Kubinyi. The Adventures of Yoo-Lah-Teen: A Legend of the Salish Coastal Indians. New York: Dial Press, 1975. ISBN 0-8037-6318-2
  • Granville Miller, Bruce (2011). Be of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish. UBC Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-4089-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links