Coast Salish

From New World Encyclopedia
Pre-contact distribution of Salishan languages (in red)
Duwamish and Suquamish redirect here.

The Coast Salish tribe consists of three geographically divided areas. These are Northern Coast, Central Coast, and Southern Coast. They are located along the coastline of the Northwest United States and Canada. Their first encounter with European explorers was with Juan de Fuca in 1592. Reports and diaries of early explorers indicated that the Coast Salish had a complex society. They had the advantage of settling in permanent homes built of timber, which grew profusely in the region. They had a steady diet of salmon, seafood, wildlife, and plants that were abundant. Their spiritual traditions were deeply involved in the relationship of tribal members to the spirit world including ancestors, guiding spirits, and animal spirits. Many of the tribes became Roman Catholic after the missionaries arrived in the mid to late 1800s.

The Coast Salish are currently regaining language and culture that was almost lost after the loss of their lands and lifestyle. Their artwork and carving such as totem poles are renowned throughout the world as symbolic of Native American art in general.


Coast Salish refers to First Nations or Native American cultures in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon who speak one of the Salishan language family's many languages or dialects. It is thus a cultural or ethnographic designation, although there is no one language or people named "Coast Salish." There are three regional designations: North Coastal, Central, and South Coastal.

The Coast Salish homeland encompasses most of the Strait of Georgia-Puget Sound Basin, encompassing the sites of the modern-day cities of Vancouver, British Columbia, Seattle, Washington and others. This area is divided into regions designated as north, central, and southern coastal. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Coast Salish may have inhabited the area as far back as 9000 B.C.E. What is now Seattle, for example, has been inhabited since the end of the last glacial period (c. 8,000 B.C.E.—10,000 years ago).[1]

Throughout their existence, most of the Coast Salish people have relied on fishing as the mainstay of their culture and their survival. They designed the commonly used fishing methods of the reef net, the weir, and the purse seine, and lived in villages along the mainland and throughout the San Juan Islands. Ceremonies and legends related to salmon and salmon fishing, with names such as The First Salmon Ceremony and The Tale of the Salmon Woman have been passed down through generations and provide evidence of the sacred relationship between the Lummi history and culture and the salmon.


Chudups John and others in a canoe on Lake Union, Seattle, c. 1885

Central Coast Salish

The Central Coast Salish may have encountered Spanish explorer, Juan de Fuca, in 1592. Regular Spanish presence in this area began in the early 1790s. Smallpox was probably was introduced at this time having a devastating effect on the population. A smallpox epidemic broke out among the Northwest tribes in 1762, killing roughly half the affected native populations. Documentation in archives and historical epidemiology demonstrates that governmental policies furthered the progress of this epidemic among the natives, and did little or nothing about the waves of other introduced epidemics.[2] Mean population decline 1774–1874 was about 66 percent.[3] A smallpox vaccine was discovered in 1801. Russian Orthodox missionaries battled the epidemic by vaccinating at-risk Native populations in what is now SE Alaska and NW British Columbia.[4]

The Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Langely on the Fraser River in 1827. Port Victoria further increased trade from Alaska to California after construction in 1843. The Treaty of Washington split the tribe between the United States and Canada in 1846. The British made reserves for each village. In the U.S., the Point Elliot and Point No Point Treaties in 1855 established regional reservations. The Lummi Reservation was founded at this time.

Christian missionaries arrived in 1841 and were effective in conversion of several tribes. Encroachment of white settlers further reduced tribal lands in the 1890s. By this time the lifestyle of the tribes and bands were significantly changed due to suppression of their culture in boarding schools, economic decline, and the spread of the Shaker religion.[5]

Central Coast Salish tribes and villages are Squamis, Nooksak, Klallam, Halkomelem and Northern Straits, Downriver, and Upriver. The Northern Straits have six divisions including Sooke, Songhees, Saanich, Semiahmoo, Lummi and Samish.

North Coast Salish

The North Coast Salish had a similar experience to the Central Coast Salish in the 1700s and early 1800s. Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1860s drawing many converts. The potlatch tradition was forbidden after the establishment of Catholic churches. By the end of the century the language and culture of these tribes were almost completely gone.

The tribes and villages were located on the northern half of the Strait of Georgia, including east-central Vancouver Island. The bands in British Columbia include: the Comox, Homalco, Klahoose, Qualicum, Sechelt, and Sliammon.

South Coast Salish

Suquamish woman photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1913.

South Coast Salish lived in the Puget Sound Basin of Washington. George Vancouver visited in 1792. The fur trade industry was focused farther north following the habitat of sea otters. This region was largely left alone for several decades after Vancouver's visit.

Fort Nisqually was created in 1833. Catholic missionaries came in the 1840s and the U.S. took control of the region in the Treaty of Washington (1846). Treaties were signed in 1854 and 1855 ceding tribal lands and creating reservations. Chief Lesche was hanged for protesting the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1858. Upper Skagits were left landless in the Point Elliot Treaty. The Shaker religion spread through the end of the 1800s.

The Skokomish Reservation founded in 1874 include the Twana, Klallam, and Chimakum tribes. The Port Madison Reservation was founded in 1855 and is the home of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes. The Muckleshoot reservation created a constitution and by-laws in 1836, under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The Nisqually reservation approved a constitution and by-laws in 1946 for the Nisqually tribe. The Puyallup Reservation is governed by the Puyallup tribe and is also home to the Nissquallis, Cowlitzes, Muckleshoots, Steilacooms, and other Indians. The Tulip Reservation (formerly the Snohomish Reservation)is home to the Snohomish, Stillagguamish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, Duwamish, Puyallop, Nisqually, Squaxin, Skagit, and Samish tribes. The Upper Skagit Reservation regulates fishing on the Skagit through the Skagit River Cooperative [6] The Lummi, Nooksack, and Swinomish tribes reside there. Other reservations are the Swinomish, the Squaxin, the Sauk-Suiattle, the Stillaguamish, and the Snohomish.

The Duwamish tribe is included in traditional life with other Coast Salish tribes in the Seattle area. By language, the Duwamish are (Skagit-Nisqually) Lushootseed Salish. In many other ways, they are Coast Salish. The tribe and name developed in parallel with the times of the Treaty of Point Elliott and its aftermath in the 1850s (when the name was the Dwamish tribe). Before intense contact, the Duwamish tribe was the People of the Inside (for Elliott Bay environs today), and the People of the Large Lake (for those around Lake Washington), in the local language. Adjacent tribes throughout the Salish Sea watershed were interconnected and interrelated, yet distinct. The people have been living in what is now metropolitan Seattle since the end of the last glacial period.

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle, taken in the 1860s

"Chief Sealth" (Ts'ial-la-kum), better known today as Chief Seattle (also Sealth, Seathl or See-ahth) (c. 1786 – June 7, 1866), was a leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes in what is now the state of Washington. A prominent figure among his people, he pursued a path of accommodation to white settlers, forming a personal relationship with David Swinson "Doc" Maynard. Seattle, Washington was named after the Chief. Sealth was born around 1786 on or near Blake Island, Washington. His father, Schweabe, was a leader of the Suquamish tribe, and his mother was Scholitza of the Duwamish. He was very tall for a Puget Sound native at nearly six feet; Hudson's Bay Company traders gave him the nickname Le Gros (The Big One). He was also known as an orator; and his voice is said to have carried half a mile or more when he addressed an audience.

After the death of one of his sons in battle, he sought and received baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, adopting the baptismal name Noah, probably in 1848 near Olympia, Washington. His children were also baptized and raised in the faith.[7]

When his people were driven from their traditional clamming grounds, Sealth met Maynard in Olympia. Persuading the settlers at Duwamps to rename the town Seattle, Maynard established their support for Sealth's people and negotiated relatively peaceful relations among the tribes.

Recent history

In 1934, the United States lifted the suppression of the potlatch tradition. The ban was lifted in Canada in 1951.[8]

In the 1960s there was a renaissance of tribal culture and civil rights actions for treaty rights. Fishing and logging declined as an industry from this time into the 1970s. In 1974, the Boldt Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Salish one half of the fish caught in their waters based on the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1855. From this time till the present the tribes have been federally recognized and have pursued economic autonomy through casino gambling, fisheries, tax-free tobacco sales, and cultural development.

Cultures of the Coast Salish


The three regions of Salish shared very similar religious myth, beliefs, and ceremonies. The class system of wealthy families holding the keys to the religious beliefs and practices was the foundation of Salish society. Belief in guardian spirits and transmutation between human and animal were widely shared in myriad forms. The relations of soul or souls, 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 tribe, for example, had a soul recovery and journey ceremony.[9]

All the Salish tribes utilized stories as a method to teach. This was often a process of an elder skilled at oral tradition speaking to the younger tribe members. Stories were used to convey traditions, ethics, spiritual beliefs and world view. The oral tradition of the tribes was not closely studied throughout the twentieth century. A few anthropologists and linguists, attempted to gather some information. For example, Melville Jacobs wrote in his book on the subject in 1959, "Except for the small band of professional folklorists, readings of non-Western oral literature are, I suppose, about as rare as nuclear physicists who read Bulgarian poetry." [10]

Examples of stories that were told include: Coyote and Skunk: He Tied His Musk Sac' Badger and Coyote Were Neighbors' Grizzly and Black Bear Ran Away with the Two Girls; and Grizzly Woman Killed People. Central features found in stories like these were to convey tribal ethics, values, and traditions. Evidence from the stories indicate that there was high value placed in generosity, giving of feasts and dances, loyalty to family and village, acquisition of spirit powers, being a good son-in-law and husband, membership in families of well-to-do persons, and shrewdness.

World views conveyed through the Myth Era of the Oregonian Salish told of an earth that was made of precultural tribes of people in various conditions of incompleteness and with many things and creatures which were like humans. [11] These people were very undeveloped in almost all ways and, in some cases, didn't even have fishing equipment to feed themselves. Even rock was considered to be a creature.

Two themes predominate throughout the tradition. These are the "trickster" and the "transformer" or judge. Coyote was a perennially juvenile character that tricked others. Blue Jay was also a trickster and also something of a clown. An example of the trickster role is found in the story where Coyote loses his temper at a Centipede and thus blocked all people from being able to return from death or to live eternally. Characters that represented transformation or judgement announcements were, the insane Grizzly Woman and Cock Robin's Older Sister.[12]

At the core of the stories was the central value of belonging and relationship. All were linked in a chain created from intense feelings based around objects, individuals, food, song, dance, and supernatural entities. Importantly, their sense of cosmology was their village not a far flung immense universe. Kin was the most concrete and important link in the chain of life.

After the arrival of missionaries representing Christian and Catholic faiths, many of the old traditions were left behind. It was only through the memory of elders and the few people that recorded the oral stories that there is any record of them. Many stories have probably been lost. A reconciliation between Christian beliefs and respect for the old traditions is in process in the twenty-first century.

Central Coast Mythical stories speak of ancient ancestors that were influenced by forces that could lure the spirit away. Shamans were needed to bring back the spirits. Shamans were helped by spirit helpers that imbued them with special powers. Spirit dances were held in the winter. Salmon ceremonies were also held at the time of the first catch. Salmon Woman was a respected character of stories about the value of sharing and giving away.

North Coast Shamans provided religious leadership. Special powers were given to tribal members from guardian spirits. High status families performed elaborate mask dances in the winter. A spirit dance was also performed for all tribal members at that time. Masks of exquisite artistic design and color were worn by dancers at night so that the darkness created a backdrop. Lighting came from the fire at the center of the lodge. The flickering of the flames created dancing shadows across the masks that gave them a lifelike quality. Typical masks were of Raven, Thunderbird, Bear, and other worldly entities representing spirits.

South Coast It was believed that people had life soul and heart soul. The separation of the life soul from the heart soul was believed to cause illness. Life souls went to the land of the dead to return in later incarnations. The heart soul dissolved away. A winter dance was help to help ill persons' spirits return. The method of bringing souls back involved dancing, singing, feasting, and giving gifts (potlatch). A dance depicting a rescue of the soul by canoe was enacted. Wealthy families were allowed membership in a secret religious society.[13]

Social organization

Duwamish man & woman, Old Tom & Madeline, Portage Bay, Seattle, c 1904

Central Coast Villages were settled by households. The head of the most established household was the chief of the village. Their position was one of wealth (and largess) not power. Several extended families comprised a household. Many men married several wives that all lived together. Each household owned fishing and clam ground, nets, and tools. Some families had prestige due to ancestry. Marriage was allowed within and without the village. Wedding ceremonies included exchanges of gifts and hereditary privilege.

South Coast South Coast social and governmental systems were very similar to the Central Coast Salish. Most families traced their ancestry through patrilineal lines that derived from a mythical ancestor. The right to hold potlatches, some ceremonies and dances were also inherited. Women and girls had many restrictions. Boys were trained to seek a guardian spirit.

North Coast North Coast social and governmental systems were very similar to the Central and South Coast Salish. All Salish tribes had a class system. This included wealthy, high birth families that sponsored feasts and ceremonies, less wealthy families and slaves. Slaves were considered to be property.[14] All tribal members had their head flattened at birth except slaves. At adolescence both sexes were sent to seek visions. Marriage was arranged by families usually between different villages.


Si7xten in Lillooet

Villages of the Coast Salish typically consisted of Western Red Cedar split plank and earthen floor longhouses providing habitation for 40 or more people, usually a related extended family.

Also used by many groups were pit-houses, known in the Chinook Jargon as kekuli. A reconstruction of such an underground house can be seen by the public near the Lillooet Tribal Council's offices near the reserve community of T't'ikt (in English the "T-bird Rancherie") in Lillooet, British Columbia. Called a si7xten (SHIH-stn) in the St'at'imcets language, its design is based on notes drawn by anthropologist James Teit from interviews with a St'at'imc (Interior Salish) woman.

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.

A longhouse at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

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 family groups.

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.[15] The larger houses included partitions to separate families, as well as interior fires with roof slats that functioned as chimneys.[16]

Houses were distinguished by family group, with painted and carved house posts of ancestors and spirit powers. Each family kept their own fire. There were grave houses for the dead, sweat lodges, permanent winter houses and summer mat houses.


The south Coast Salish may have had more vegetables and land game than people farther north or on the outer coast. Fish and salmon were staples. 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.[17] Indeed, the south Salish Sea watershed was so abundant that the south Coast Salish as a whole had one of the only sedentary hunter-gatherer societies that has ever existed.


Coast Salish artwork is found in a variety of forms. They were masters of carving and painting in a unique style depicting animals, birds, fish, mythical figures, humans, and spirit beings. The use of red and black and other colors depicting negative and positive dimensions gives their artistic style a very distinctive quality. Masks of mythical beings range from small to extremely large. Excellent examples are found at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Coast Salish art design is receiving international attention. Artisans are finding that their works are in demand in a variety of forms such as jewelry, clothing, carving, and painting. Often themes of spirituality, relationship to the environment and mythology are combined to create universal themes that are of global interest.

Revival of interest in Coast Salish art includes the construction of new totem poles. A number of totem poles have been constructed to commemorate significant events in recent history. In early July of 2002, Lummi tribal member Jewell Praying Wolf James (Indian Name: tse-Sealth, a lineal descendant of Chief Seattle) began carving an old growth cedar log donated by Crown Pacific Limited Partnership of Portland, Oregon. James, a Northwest Coast Spirit Dancer, master carver and President of the House of Tears Carvers, volunteered to carve a traditional Healing Pole to be placed on September 7 in Arrow Park, in the Sterling Forest, on an 80-acre site dedicated to the memory of those who were killed at the World Trade Center terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. The 20,000-acre Sterling Forest, one hour north of Manhattan, is the sister forest of the Arlecho Creek forest, located one hour north of Seattle in Washington State.[18]

Current Activities

The Coast Salish are served by the Coast Salish Employment and Training Society. This organization produces the Coast Salish News to 22 members. It also coordinates the annual Coast Salish Games for youth. The Artisan Outlet in Vancouver, Canada, offers employment for artisans of tribal artwork and clothing. Casinos also are providing new employment opportunities for the tribes. Fishing continues to be a consistent support for food and work.

Fishing and gathering of shellfish is the primary means of subsistence for most of the Lummi. Their livelihood and culture is based on fishing, and has been so since their existence as a tribe for the past 12,000 years. This critical economic and cultural resource, however, is presently severely threatened with extinction. In recent years the salmon stocks have drastically declined. Once so thick that you could "walk on their backs" as legends say, two of the four species of salmon are now being considered for the national Endangered Species list.

The Lummi people, like all Coast Salish tribes, have been dramatically confronted by this salmon decline, and have formed a united front that plays an extremely important role in maintaining the fish stocks in the region and responsibly managing and using the threatened salmon resource. The Lummi carry this out by maintaining the largest Native American fishing fleet in the Pacific Northwest, which boasts of the most extensive fisheries protection program in the region. This program enlists the services of over 150 highly qualified tribal fisheries technicians and specialists, many of whom were trained at the Lummi School of Aquaculture or, more recently, the Lummi Community College. The Lummi Tribe's Fisheries Department has an annual budget of over $3,000,000 and operates one of the most successful and productive salmon hatcheries in the United States, releasing over 17,000,000 salmon fingerlings each year.

As the salmon population continues to be threatened, the Lummi are currently working by increasing the productivity of their hatchery operation, actively pursuing the establishment of new and stricter laws to protect salmon habitat, and engaging in an aggressive public education campaign to better inform the public of the importance of the salmon in creating sustainable livelihoods for many of the Washington state citizens. The Lummi are also represented on the International Salmon Commission that seeks to restrain the activities of the off-shore drift net fishery.

The actions of the Lummi tribe provide a model for the involvement of indigenous peoples in the planning and management of our existing natural resources. By actively taking part in both local and international efforts, the Lummi are forcing the current industrialized society to listen to and account for traditional values and management methods with regards to natural resources. Sound policy changes are needed that discount present actions according to their impact on future generations, and often, indigenous peoples are the true experts on such policy due to their understanding of generational time. To the Lummi, over-fishing is not an option because it won't last into the future and if fishing is gone, their identity and culture will disappear.

According to the Lummi, the Great Salmon Woman has taught them that if they take only the amount of salmon needed and protect the birthing areas of the salmon (who are hatched, go to sea for four years, and then return to their birth spot to spawn and die), the salmon will continue to exist and thrive. With this understanding, the Lummi people continue to work toward sustainable management of our current resources, and to educate the people of today in the management methods they have been using for thousands of years.[18]


  1. P. Talbert, 2006. "SkEba'kst: The Lake People and Seward Park." Retrieved on August 21, 2007.
  2. R. Boyd. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline Among Northwest Coast Indians. (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1999, ISBN 0295978376)
  3. Lange, 2003. "Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians", Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History. Retrieved on 8 December 2006.
  4. Boyd, 1999
  5. B. Pritzker. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and People. (New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2000, ISBN 019513897x), 190.
  6. Pritzker, 201
  7. David M. Buerge. "Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons," University of Washington Libraries. Retrieved September 23, 2007.
  8. D. Cole and I. Chaikin. An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1990, ISBN 0295974494)
  9. Wayne P. Suttles and Barbara Lane. "South Coast Salish" Handbook of North American Indians, vol 7: Northwest coast, edited by William C. Sturtevant. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990), 486-487
  10. M. Jacobs. The Content and Style of an Oral Literature, Myths, and Tales. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 1. Retrieved on September 22, 2007
  11. Jacobs, 1959. 196
  12. Jacobs, 1959
  13. Pritzker, 2000
  14. Pritzker, 2000
  15. Suttles & Lane 1990, 491
  16. Pritzker, 2000
  17. Suttles & Lane, 1990, 488-489
  18. 18.0 18.1 Lummi Nation Retrieved August 23, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boyd, R. 1999. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infections, Diseases, and Population Decline Among Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295978376
  • Cole, D., and I. Chaikin. 1990. Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch in the Northwest Coast. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295974494
  • Pritzker, B., 2000. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and People. New York, NY: Oxford Press. ISBN 019513897x
  • Suttles, Wayne. 1987. Coast Salish Essays. Talonbooks. ISBN 0889222126
  • Suttles, Wayne and William Sturtevant. 1990. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0160203902


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