The Coast Salish is a group of ethnically and linguistically related indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, living in British Columbia, Canada and the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon. 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 big loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples span from the northern limit of the Strait of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island and covers 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.
Below is a list of some, but not all, of the tribes and nations located in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
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:
In implementation, this means half the catch, at sustainable levels by subsequent negotiations.
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.
The first smallpox epidemic to hit the region was in the 1680s, with the disease travelling overland from Mexico by intertribal transmission. 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. 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. Mean population decline 1774–1874 was about 66%. Though the Salish peoples together are less numerous than the Cherokee or Navajo, the numbers shown below represent a small fraction of the group.
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.
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. 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.
The highest-ranking male assumed the role of ceremonial leader but rank could vary and was determined by different standards. 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. 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.
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.
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.
The art of the Coast Salish has been interpreted and incorporated into contemporary art in British Columbia and the Puget Sound area.
Bilateral kinship within the Skagit people is the most important system being defined as a carefully knit, and sacred bond within the society. When both adult siblings die, their children would be brought under the protection of surviving brothers and sisters out of fear of mistreatment by stepparents.
The Salish sea region of the Northwest coast has hosted ancient pieces of art appearing by 4500 BP that features various Salish styles. A seated human feature bowl was used in a female puberty ritual in Secwepemc territory which helps women give birth. Salish made bowls in the Northwest have different artistic designs and features. There are many bowls that have basic designs with animal features on the surface. Similar bowls will have more decorations including a head, body, wings, and limbs. A seated figure bowl is more complex in design depicting humans being intertwined with animals.
Northwest coast Salish people valued material possessions above most things. Material wealth according to natives within the Northwest included things such as land, food resources, household items, and adornments. Material wealth not only improved one's life but it increased other qualities such as that was needed to acquire high status. Wealth was required to enhance their status as elite born, or through practical skills, and ritual knowledge. An individual could not buy status or power, while wealth could be used to enhance them. Wealth was not meant to be hidden and is publicly displayed through ceremony.
Belief in guardian spirits and shapeshifting 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 practised. The Duwamish had a soul recovery and journey ceremony and legends. They also had many ceremonies and celebrations.
The Quileute Salish people near the Port Townsend area had their own beliefs about where souls of all living things go. The shamans of these people believed everything had five components to its spirit; the body, an inner and outer soul, its life force, and its ghost. It is believed that an individual becomes ill when their soul is removed from their body and is followed by death when it reaches the underworld. It is the job of the Shaman to travel to the underworld to save the individual by recovering the soul while it is travelling between the two worlds. The Shamans believed that once the individual's body is dead it is able to connect with its soul and shade in the underworld. It is believed that the spirits are able to come back amongst the living and cause family members to die of sickness and join them in the afterlife. Living individuals were terrified of the intentions of the spirits who only appear during the night, prompting Salish people to travel during the day and staying close to others for protection. Coastal Salish beliefs describe the journey to the underworld as a two-day adventure. The individual must walk along a trail passing through bushes and a lake to reach a valley that is divided by a river where they will reside. Salish belief of the afterlife very closely resembles the past life they lived often assigning themselves to jobs to keep busy, hunt for animals and game, and live with their families.
Coastal Salish people believe that through dances, masks, or ceremonies they express themselves through the spiritual powers that they are given. Spirit powers define a community's success through leadership, warriordom, healing, or artistry. Spirit dancing ceremonies are common gatherings during the winter for members of the community to show their spirit powers through song, or dance. The powers they acquired were sought after individually after going through trials of isolation where their powers relate to spirit animals such as a raven, woodpecker, bear, or seal. Oftentimes members of the community will get together to show their powers at the longhouse floor, where the spiritual powers are for the individual alone for each member to share and display various songs.
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 from 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.
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.
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. One was excavated by Kisha Supernant in 2008 at Yale, British Columbia. 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.
Native groups along the Northwest coast have been using plants for making wood and fiber artifacts for over 10,500 years. Anthropologists are searching for aquifer wet sites that would contain ancient Salish villages. These sites are created by a series of waters running through the archaeological deposits creating an environment with no oxygen that preserves wood and fiber The wet sites would typically contain perishable artifacts that were used as wedges, fishhooks, basketry, cordage, and nets.
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.
Salish groups such as Muckleshoot were heavily reliant on seasonal foods that included animals and plants. In January, they would gather along the river banks to catch salmon. By May, Salmonberry sprouts would be eaten with salmon eggs. Men would hunt deer and elk, while women gathered camas and clams from the prairies and beaches. By the summer, steelhead and king salmon appeared in masses along the rivers, and berries were abundant in the forests.
See Legends of Vancouver by Canadian author E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake). This book of Coast Salish "as told-to" narratives stems from the author's relationship to Squamish Chief Joe Capilano. It first appeared in 1911, now available online from UPenn Digital Library.
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.
In the third episode of the first season of the FX TV show, Taboo, Tom Hardy's character James Delaney visits his mother Anna Delaney's grave and on the bottom of the grave marker it says, "Salish."
The use of the term Coast Salish, and its association with an attribute of nationhood, has increasingly become resisted, as that notion of a ‘national’ grouping is not a traditional part of the culture of Salish communities in this area, and as the term derives more from anthropology than community self-description. The phenomenon replacing this terminology is increasingly to indicate the specific tribe in question, or otherwise to use terms not given by non-Indigenous entities.
The closely associated habitation site is one of the oldest discovered (ca. 5000 years).
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.
The culture evidenced here was present in the Fraser Delta from about 400 BC to AD 450.