British Columbia

Whatever happened to the Salish woolly dog? Learn more about this extinct breed with virtual history lessons

Museum of North Vancouver Indigenous Cultural Programmer Senaqwila Wyss of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) is hosting free online sessions with the museum that will explore the history and cultural importance of the now extinct furry friend of many coastal First Nation communities.

Museum of North Vancouver Indigenous educator hosting free knowledge-sharing sessions

In this 1856 painting by Paul Kane, a Coast Salish woman from Vancouver Island is depicted weaving a blanket. Next to her is a depiction of a Salish woolly dog, once a beloved pet in many Salish communities. (Royal Ontario Museum)

Senaqwila Wyss wants people to know what really happened to the furry companions of her people.

Wyss, who hails from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), is the Indigenous cultural programmer at the Museum of North Vancouver and starting July 21, she will be holding virtual knowledge-sharing sessions on alternating Wednesdays that will look at the history and extinction of the Salish woolly dog.

The Salish woolly dog was a small, usually white, long-haired dog with a curled tail and thick fur very similar to sheep's wool. Bred before European contact, the oldest remains of the dog were found in Puget Sound and the Georgia Strait that date back 4,000 years.

The dogs were found in Coast Salish communities throughout southern Vancouver Island, the Salish Sea, and Washington State and while their hair was used to make clothing and blankets, they were also kept as companions.

"We did have a utilitarian use of sharing the wool, depending on the dog, usually around once a year, so they were used for a special weaving fibre, but they were also a beloved pet," said Wyss, speaking to CBC's The Early Edition Wednesday.

Senaqwila Wyss sits near an area overlooking what was once the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh village site called K'emk'emeláy. In her role as Indigenous cultural programmer at the Museum of North Vancouver, Wyss is hosting a series of Zoom sessions to share knowledge about the Salish woolly dog, including sharing archival photos as well as having local nations share oral histories on the now extinct animal. (Ben Nelms)

But the Salish woolly dog's population declined with colonizer contact and by 1900, the long, woolly fur characteristics of the breed had virtually disappeared, with the exception of a few rare sightings on reserves up to 1940.

After contact with European traders, and the introduction of cheaper sheep's wool from the Hudson's Bay Company, the wool dogs disappeared as a distinct breed. 

Wyss said while it is not documented in history books, their extinction is a consequence of the same colonial agenda inflicted on Indigenous people.

"Through my different Indigenous communities, it has been shared with me ... that many communities actually had [the] RCMP or government kill the dogs on the shoreline," said Wyss. "The Salish woolly dogs were part of the colonial genocide that happened."

Dogs brought by Europeans also bred with the west coast woolly and eventually, the beloved breed of so many First Nation communities ceased to exist.

"It was definitely a story that was not written through history books," said Wyss.

To hear more from Wyss about the cultural significance of the extinct canine, register for her free one-hour knowledge-sharing sessions.

The virtual sessions will be held on Zoom every second Wednesday starting tonight at 7 p.m. and will include archival photos and guests from local nations.

With files from The Early Edition