British Columbia

Rare blankets made from fur of extinct woolly dog on display at North Vancouver museum

The wool from the Salish woolly dog was valuable in Salish communities' culture and economy.

The Salish wooly dog was historically sheared once a year for its thick fur

A small white dog is pictured in a garden in a black-and-white photograph.
A Salish woolly dog is pictured on the East Saanich reserve, about 20 kilometres north of Victoria, in 1935. The breed was near extinction by 1900, with a few rare sightings on reserves until 1940. (W̱SÁNEĆ Nation / University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections)

For thousands of years, the Salish woolly dog resided on B.C.'s southwest coast, providing their owners with companionship — and hair. 

Now, blankets woven from the fur of this extinct dog are on display at the Museum of North Vancouver until early July.

The woolly dogs were a part of Coast Salish culture that was erased during colonization, says the museum's Indigenous cultural programmer Senaqwila Wyss. 

"It's time to share their story now, as it's been pretty silenced for so long," said Wyss, who is from the Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh) First Nation.

The dogs — which date back thousands of years — were small- to medium-sized with white fur of a woolly texture, somewhat resembling the modern-day breed of the Spitz, according to Wyss. 

A small white dog stands in a field in a black-and-white photograph.
This photo, taken on the East Saanich reserve in 1935, shows a 14-year-old Salish woolly dog. (W̱SÁNEĆ Nation/University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections)

The dogs, known for their calm temperament, lived in longhouses or other types of dwellings with their owners and usually had their own beds. 

"They were really our best friend, companion. They would be the only animals coming into our homes."

According to a 2020 study, their diet consisted almost entirely of seafood fed to them by their owners. 

The woolly dog population diminished when colonizers made contact and introduced cheaper sheep's wool from the Hudson's Bay Company.

By 1900, they had virtually disappeared, with a few rare sightings on reserves up to 1940. 

"It was through colonization that we were forced, rather than really making a choice to change our lifestyle," said Wyss. 

Friendship and wealth

Just as much as these dogs provided companionship, they played an important role in the local culture and economy. 

Once a year in the spring, the dogs were sheared. Their fur was then cleaned and used to make rare and treasured ceremonial robes, often mixed with other materials like mountain goat wool, feathers, and plant fibres, according to the museum's website.

"This was one of the forms of our wealth, our weaving," said Wyss. 

"As Salish people, we had a really strong connection to the woolly dogs."

The museum will exhibit two of these blankets alongside other woolly dog artwork by Salish artists, including Chase Gray, Sarah Jim, and Eliot White-Hill. 

Wyss began working on this exhibit about two years ago when she discovered the museum had a woolly dog hair blanket in its archives that hadn't been displayed publicly in over a decade.

The second robe on display is on loan to the museum by textile collector Terrence Loychuk. Wyss said Loychuk was researching woolly dog hair and found the blanket in a thrift store in Langley. 

With files from On The Coast and Bridgette Watson