This story originally ran in IndigiNews and is being republished with minor edits.

Debra qasen Sparrow recalls talking and learning about Coast Salish woolly dogs with her grandfather, Ed Sparrow, in her early days as a weaver. Born in 1898, Ed remembered seeing the now-extinct canines around their village, and watching the women weaving with the companion animal’s woolly hairs.

The xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band) artist’s grandfather told her that “every village had wool dogs, that they were like gold because, of course, their fibers were mixed with the mountain goat and then rove [made into a roving for spinning] and spun,” she shared.

Known in some Coast Salish languages as “pa7pa7ḵin,” “sqwemá:y,” “kimia,” “sqʷəméy̓,” “sqwbaý,” and “q’əbəɫ,” these wool-bearing dogs were carefully bred for thousands of years for their distinctive thick undercoat.

Once a beloved companion to the Musqueam and related nations in and around what is now known as “British Columbia, Canada,” the last woolly dog disappeared more than 100 years ago. Coast Salish communities have been collectively mourning and remembering these canines from the Salish Sea to Stó:lō for decades. Some even call for their return, including jokes about a Jurassic Park reboot.

But despite its extinction in the physical realm, “it stands imaginary beside me all the time,” said Sparrow. The dogs live on through longstanding oral histories and artwork from the past and present, and Coast Salish people continue to learn from these adored ancestral pets — which Sparrow lovingly refers to as “little beings” or “woolly guys.”

To re-establish her ancestors’ practice, the esteemed weaver plans to recreate a dog wool blanket this year, with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. By weaving modern dog hair — maybe husky or samoyed — with mountain goat wool, diatomaceous earth and stinging nettle, and dying the fibres with mushrooms and lichen, she hopes to show that, while the woolly dog is extinct, the practice of weaving with dog hair doesn’t have to be.

She’s currently experimenting with different kinds of dog hair and has been offered bags from as far as New Zealand, but it will be a trial process to see what works.

Debra Sparrow working on her weaving (MOA Collection 3356/1) in the Museum of Anthropology on the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Photo by Alina Ilyasova

For now, Sparrow is working on creating a stuffed animal of a woolly dog that will be brought into stores, including Eighth Generation at Pike Place Market, so that people can hold him and get to know him.

“We’ve been reconnected with the blankets now. This final journey is reconnecting with the little being and returning that gift,” she said.

“Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It always did.”

Learning from a woolly dog pelt

Sparrow’s project to reconnect with the ancient weaving practice — and physical representation of the beloved companion animal — also comes at a time of broader illumination about the history of the woolly dog.

Recently, she was part of a group of Coast Salish community members who had an opportunity to virtually reconnect with a 160-year-old woolly dog pelt — the only known remains of any woolly dog in existence.

In December, the results from the analysis involving academics and co-authors, including Coast Salish Elders, Youth, weavers and other knowledge-keepers, were released in the journal Science, illuminating this historic animal’s ancestry, genetics and cultural details.

For the study, seven interviews were conducted with Coast Salish weavers, Knowledge Keepers, Elders, and Youth about their knowledge of these dogs, including their memories and concerns about how the history of these dogs has been presented.

The interviewees include Xweliqwiya Rena Point Bolton (Stó:lō), Danielle Morsette (Suquamish and Shxwhá:y), Susan sa’hLa mitSa Pavel (Skokomish), Michael Pavel (Skokomish), Senaqwila Wyss (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw), Eliot White-Hill (Snuneymuxw), and Sparrow.

The questions revolved around the role and value of these dogs, the use of dog wool in blankets, diet and husbandry (the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals), companionship, processing, spinning and weaving the wool, colonial practices/policies that impacted them, and their thoughts on how the knowledge gathered from this project should be shared.

A reconstruction image of the Coast Salish dog. Illustration by Karen Carr

Senaqwila Wyss’s work publically sharing stories of the pa7pa7iḵn, which translates to “fluffy-haired dog” in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish language), has been instrumental in bringing these dogs’ stories to light for years.

“If there were an emergency, a woman would grab her woolly dog and her child,” Wyss shared in an interview with IndigiNews, recounting a passage from Chief Louis Miranda and other Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Elders.

Wyss, an ethnobotanist and member of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation, described being on Zoom calls with relatives as part of this study, closely looking over the pelt. They would ask the researchers to describe its scent and slowly study the textures of the under and overcoat, wanting to take in all of the small details.

Many of the Coast Salish people interviewed shared similar sentiments about colonization and how the impacts of the smallpox epidemic highlighted the loss of people within the community (90 per cent of Indigenous people in some villages across “B.C.”), leading to the loss of people to care for their animals.

Others talked about how Indian agents, priests and police would take the dogs away or kill them, similar to how the bison were slaughtered to control Indigenous communities in the prairies.

Most colonial accounts of these dogs’ disappearance were attributed to the introduction of Hudson Bay Company point blankets, which have become symbolic of representing genocide and contributing to the colonial narrative that these dogs disappeared due to convenience, but Salish communities disagree.

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun, a Snuneymuxw artist and storyteller, was one of the interviewees involved in the ethnographic interviews of the study.

“That it would have been more convenient doesn’t align with my understanding of our practices and culture,” he said.

“I think about when we’re preparing cedar boughs for ceremony. It’s really critical that you harvest them before sunrise. You could harvest them anytime around the day, but to us, it’s imperative that you do this work in a really specific way and that protocol is followed.”

Artwork depicting woolly dogs by Eliot White-Hill

Further, White-Hill explained how the dogs have a significant value to communities beyond the blankets and other objects made from their hair.

“The socioeconomic significance of these woolly dogs is rooted in not only the value of the blankets […] but the value of the dogs themselves,” he shared.

“They were so cherished and so loved,” he added. “They were owned and passed down, mother to daughter, matrilineally. The stories about the dogs and the history show that they had a special place in the hearts of our ancestors. They embodied what it meant to be wealthy and high-ranking in a traditional sense.”

White-Hill discussed how Hul’qumi’num has different pronouns for referring to humans, objects, and living things and that the woolly dogs were referred to in the same way they would family members.

“It starts to unravel, in a way, people’s understanding of us as a hunter-gatherer society,” White-Hill said in a quote from the ethnographic interviews in the journal’s supplemental materials.

“Our relationship with the woolly dogs, our relationship with the camas patches and the clam beds, the way that we tended the land and tended the forests … these all show the systems in place that are far more complex than what people take for granted about Coast Salish culture.”

With support from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, White-Hill is currently writing and illustrating a children’s storybook based on a story shared by Elder Gary Manson about how a raven, the chief of the wilderness, tricked these dogs using Salish art and storytelling.

As for Wyss, she continues to highlight Salish perspectives and demystify colonial narratives on the history of these woolly dogs through language, archival photos, and memes. She’s glad that the bodies of these institutions are supporting them but hopes they remember that the Elders, knowledge keepers, and master weavers are supporting their work simultaneously.

Illustration by Senaqwila Wyss

“In many ways, I want our Elders and community members to be heard, but at the same time, that’s challenging. Two-eyed seeing may be helpful, but it’s almost a double-edged sword. It’s sort of condescending to say, ‘Yeah, what you’ve said all along was true.’”

For now, Sparrow, Wyss, and White-Hill are all waiting for the precious woolly dog pelt to visit the West Coast for ceremony.

“Everybody will be waiting and anticipating when and how that will happen,” shared Sparrow.

Archaeology, dog bones and genetics

The pelt utilized in the study belonged to the Salish woolly dog Mutton, who spent his days in or near “Chilliwack” living with naturalist and ethnographer George Gibbs before he died in 1859.

After his death, Mutton’s pelt and lower leg bones made their way to the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History. They lay forgotten in a drawer nearly 3,000 kilometres from his home territories until they were rediscovered in the early 2000s.

Mutton’s pelt. Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian

Mutton, a name not claimed by the Coast Salish, was given his name by Gibbs, and some members of local nations feel this is “insulting” and “Eurocentric” as the definition of Mutton means “flesh of sheep, used as food.”

Candace Wellman, an independent historian from Whatcom County, came across correspondence from the Smithsonian regarding details about Mutton’s pelt. Wellman contacted the Smithsonian, and the museum curators invited her to measure and take photos of the pelt. Mutton’s pelt was still tagged with Gibb’s original label, which read “Indian Dog ‘Mutton,’” when they opened the drawer that housed his pelt in 2002.

His pelt, described as a “long, very dense double coat with a dense undercoat and long, fine guard hairs,” was pristine when they rediscovered it. It isn’t purely white but has slightly yellow undertones with a copperish-red discolouration in its curly tail.

It is thought that they treated it with “arsenic powder or arsenic mixed with water and alcohol” or that it was “salted down in casks” and thoroughly dried before being packed away, as suggested in directions from Spencer Baird (circa 1848) — the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution — for collecting Natural History specimens and objects, according to the supplemental materials for the journal.

The genes responsible for the dogs’ woolliness were examined in the journal titled “The History of Coast Salish ‘Woolly Dogs’ Revealed by Ancient Genomics and Indigenous Knowledge.” The authors hoped to glean information on the breeding practices and genetic modifications that underlie the hairy dog phenotype.

This research found genetic clues preserved in the pelt of Mutton, which was analyzed by molecular biologist Audrey Lin and the international research team from the Smithsonian, the University of Victoria (UVic), and other institutions.

They also compared the genome sequence against other canines, including a non-woolly dog that died in the same region in 1858 and multiple dogs that lived 500 to 5,000 years prior to the arrival of European colonizers (pre-contact dogs), modern coyotes and dog breeds distributed worldwide.

Mutton’s genome was mainly derived from these local pre-contact dogs, but they also found 16 per cent European ancestry, indicating a recent history of mixing, around 32 years before his birth. These data affirmed the dominant precolonial ancestry and perhaps even confirmed that interbreeding with settler-introduced dogs could have threatened their genetic uniqueness.

Still, the fact that most of his genome was mainly derived from pre-contact dogs means Coast Salish communities did, in fact, manage to maintain the genetic integrity of their lineage for a substantial period after first contact with colonizers, according to the journal. This echoes the knowledge that these dogs were intentionally bred to reduce the risk of crossbreeding.

Iain McKechnie, a UVic anthropology professor, co-author and zooarchaeologist (animal bone specialist), has been studying dogs for years now.

In 2020, McKechnie and a team published a paper called “Ancient dog diets on the Pacific Northwest Coast,” which looked at dog bones and the types of foods dogs were fed using a method of analyzing stable isotopes from Tseshaht First Nation territory on western “Vancouver Island.”

Bringing this knowledge to the current study, the team was able to use similar methods on Mutton to estimate what he was eating. His isotope values revealed a more terrestrial diet (from animals that live predominantly or entirely on land) than other woolly dogs, likely due to his travels with Gibbs.

“Dogs are super important to Indigenous peoples throughout the region,” he said.

“And so this history of the ancient genetics of Mutton connects to this much larger and more ancient history that connects people and histories of blanket making and weaving in the Coast Salish world and beyond. Dog bones. These bones are not just bones, but they’re from burials of dogs alongside people.”

The paper confirmed Mutton’s maternal lineage to be between 1,850 and 4,800 years old, which was consistent with what they saw in the archaeological record. Zooarchaeological remains thought to be from woolly dogs have also been found in dozens of archaeological sites in Coast Salish territories beginning 5,000 years before the present, which is directly connected to the separate study McKechnie led that examined where dogs were found in sites and how old they were.

“This [new] study affirms that Coast Salish peoples domesticated this specific breed over thousands of years to develop these unique qualities. Now, there’s a map of the genome of the breed in this work. It’s a full-on genome of an ancient Indigenous dog breed,” he said.

“It’s not one of these European Victorian-era breeds, which is very cool. It’s probably one of the oldest specialized dog breeds right in North America.”

Salish cosmology, textiles and the life of woolly dogs

Portrait of two First Nations girls holding a Salish Woolly dog. The photograph was taken by James O. Booen, Chilliwack, BC’s first professional photographer (c. 1895-1897). (courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, Booen Fonds, P. Coll 120 No. 25.)

Indigenous nations in “Washington State” and “British Columbia” would house woolly dogs in secluded populations, sometimes on islands such as sqwiqwmi (Little Dog) village on Cameron Island in Snuneymuxw territory (Nanaimo) to be isolated from hunting dogs and other canines in the village to maintain the purity of the breed.

The dogs were cared for by Coast Salish women passed down through their matriarchal lineage. One way wealth was measured was by how many woolly dogs one had.

They were fed a quality diet of salmon and marine mammal bits to keep their coats glossy and thick, and then once or twice a year, the women would show up with mussel-shell knives, shearing the dogs as one might shear a sheep, according to various Coast Salish accounts.

Because they did not have sheep and gathering mountain goat wool was seasonal and labour intensive based on when and where they shed, they would spin the dog wool into yarn with local plant fibres such as stinging nettle, fireweed fluff, mountain goat hair, and sometimes feather materials like duck down.

Traces of diatomaceous earth, which was added to the fibres as a natural insecticide, were also found, according to Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa in her research on Coast Salish Textiles. Back in May, 2023, the Museum of North Vancouver housed one such example, a Swéwḵw’elh (Chief’s Blanket) from 1850, which contained some of these materials.

One of the few contemporary depictions of Coast Salish weaving is a painting by Paul Kane called “A Woman Weaving a Blanket.” It was painted two years after Kane visited the communities and sketched what he witnessed. This painting observes either a Songhees or Saanich weaver and the woolly dog.

A Woman Weaving a Blanket, Paul Kane, oil on canvas, 1849-1856. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

These dogs were so prominent that even Captain George Vancouver’s journals extensively reported seeing them along the shorelines on his explorations around the inland waterways within the straight.

“The dogs belonging to this tribe of Indians were numerous, and much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger,” he wrote, as quoted in “The Dog’s Hair Blankets of the Coast Salish,” by F. W. Howay, found in The Washington Historical Quarterly.

“They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England; and so compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation. They were composed of a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.”

Coast Salish teachings emphasize how vital these textiles are for spiritual protection. Sparrow believes that weaving is something that connects humanity all over the world.

This is a detailed image of Swéwḵw’elh (Chief’s Blanket), ca. 1850. The principal fibre is mountain goat hair, with woolly dog hair; it also contains sheep wool trade blanket strips and cedar bark. Photo by Alison Boulier

“The Salish worldview understands that robes and blankets already exist in the spirit world and it is the weaver who brings them into the human realm,” writes Leslie H. Tepper, Janice George and Willard Joseph in Salish Blankets: Robes of Protection and Transformation, Symbols of Wealth.

Sparrow added, “The woolly dog gifts us its hair, and we spin it with the mountain goat and fibres of the earth, of nature, these gifts that we’ve all been given.”

“When we wear their blankets, we’re weaving the gift from these little beings, the gifts from the earth, and the fibres of life given to us as humans. It’s an honour. We honour our blankets, and we honour our little being. We have to take care of and nurture him, too.”

A classic-style Coast Salish blanket, which includes a mixture of woolly dog hair and goat wool. The woolly dog wool is in the warp (vertical strands). Photograph: Donald E Hurlbert/Donald E Hurlbert/Smithsonian collection

In the fall of 2020, Algra Bros. Developments Ltd. improved downtown “Chilliwack” — the area woolly dog Mutton once lived — by introducing a historic community called District 1881.

With the help of Stó:lo Research and Resource Management Centre, they introduced Woolly Dog Alley, aptly named for these same precious dogs. The Coast Salish woolly dog continues to be celebrated.

“The word for dog in SENĆOŦEN is SḴAXE, but I interpret it as sacred baby. Our language holds our world view, and that name shows how important they are to us,” shared PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper from WSÁNEĆ territory in a post on Instagram.

“We love you, woolly dogs, and we miss you so much, and I promise we will always remember you.”

Lead photo: Mary Adams and her dog Jumbo, one of the last living Coast Salish woolly dogs. Credit: Suquamish Museum Archives

Kayla MacInnis is an âpihtawikosisân iskwew who, in her work, mixes the visual and written worlds. Born in misâskwatômina (Saskatoon), she is a displaced Polish/Ukrainian & Scottish settler on...