Coastal Salish

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Coastal Salish language groups

As a Coast Salish peoples , a group of Indian ethnic groups referred to on the Pacific coast of North America in British Columbia , Washington and Oregon survived.

Linguistically it belongs to the Salish family and culturally to the area of ​​the American Northwest . The inland Salish also belong to the language family, but they live in regions further away from the coast. These are mountainous and arid, and their traditional way of life is very different from that of the coastal Salish.

There are more than 21,000 registered Indians in Canada , with over 15,000 inland. Their numbers are currently recovering fairly quickly from the catastrophic losses from epidemics and social disintegration . It is hardly possible to determine the number of coastal Salish in the USA , as many of the tribes there are not (yet) recognized.

The largest language group in Canada is the Halkomelem , which includes the Cowichan on Vancouver Island , the Musqueam and the Stó: lō on the Fraser River . Many of these tribes are more like tribal associations, whose sub-tribes often live in their own reserves . So one can distinguish 19 sub-tribes alone with the Stó: lō.

There are more than 50 ethnic groups within the coastal Salish. These often very small groups have z. Partly united to form tribal councils - tribal councils whose composition and responsibilities, however, vary.

Reserves in the northwestern United States

There are some tribes whose traditional territory crosses the border between Canada and the United States . Among these are the Arrow Lakes ( Sinixt ), which are no longer recognized as a First Nation in Canada . They are known as part of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington. The Sumas and the Semiahmoo also have cross-border territories .


The Central Coast Salish , who live on the Lower Fraser , southeast Vancouver Island, and the San Juan and Gulf Islands , share a common cultural base, but speak four different languages. Three of these language groups have indigenous names, such as the Halkomelem and the Squamish or Lushootseed . Nooksack is only spoken in Washington, but is already the Anglicized version of its own name. The fourth group includes frequently than Northern Straits Salish called idiom and is spoken both in British Columbia than in Washington. In contrast, the Pentlatch , Comox and Sechelt live on the northern Georgia Strait , each with their own language of the same name. The Bella Coola or Nuxalk form a separate language group , the former name originally referring to the Bella Coola itself and its neighbors, the Talio, the Kimsquit and some Kwatna. But after 1920 these groups amalgamated at the mouth of the Bella Coola River to form an ethnic unit that calls itself the Nuxalk.


The coastal Salish lived very early on salmon , which was abundant in the rivers, and other fish, which is why they have occasionally been referred to as "fish Indians". The salmon was accompanied by game, roots, rhizomes and berries. Before 1600 BC Some groups developed a peasant way of life in large villages, based on a number of plant species that are little known in Europe. The temperate rainforests provided the material for the often monumental totem poles , but also for houses, food, clothing and blankets.

An extensive trade connected the Salish groups with one another. The ocean-going canoes of some groups allowed trade as far as Alaska in the north and California in the south.

The general population ruled a kind of nobility, in addition there were slaves, often as prisoners of war or as a result of a raid, but often also as gifts or gifts. The rank of chief was usually hereditary, but could be revoked.

Even the first fur traders and discoverers brought in diseases that destroyed numerous tribes, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1775 .

In 1846 the United States and Great Britain divided the Oregon Country , in the center of which the Salish lived, along the 49th parallel, thus cutting up tribal areas and trade relations. The establishment of Indian reservations in Canada led to an extreme dispersion of the residential areas, in the USA, however, after several wars, tribes were amalgamated and forced into large reservations. At times, the Salish were able to play an important economic role in British Columbia until they were driven out of important industries such as the fishing industry.

In both Canada and the USA, proselytizing was the first step towards assimilation. The need to conform to the Canadian way of life resulted in all children being sent to boarding-type schools , a policy for which the Canadian government apologized in 2008. During this phase, the population shrank, most languages ​​disappeared, and migration to the cities increased so much that the majority of Salish now live there.

Thanks to more open borders and the increasing prosperity of some tribes, but above all the growing awareness of common cultural values, there was a revival of the community of Salish groups, even if the social and economic development was extremely different. Tribal associations pool their efforts, and sovereignty rights have now been granted.

While attempts were made in the USA for several decades to divide the tribal area into parcels and privatize it, the vast majority of Canadian reservations have remained in tribal ownership to this day. British Columbia has been trying to enforce this privatization contractually since 1993, albeit in exchange for greatly enlarged reservations. It has been unclear since 2008 whether this so-called BC Treaty Process will continue.

Current situation

Historical heritage protection

Many historical heritage sites are now under protection ( Heritage Conservation Act ). But this protection is not always taken seriously. For example, on South Pender Island , the luxury property owner Poets Cove Resort and Spa of Calgary was sued and convicted in 2005 for an archaeological site discovered and registered in 1955 (DeRt-004, a village and burial site dating from 3000 to 2000 BC) illegally and buried a significant part in tennis courts and parking lots. The process was operated by the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group . There, however, an amicable settlement has been reached, while the dispute over the largest burial site in British Columbia in the field of nanoosis has been smoldering since 1993.

The tribes in the USA are e.g. In some cases, they are less strongly connected to the land through settlement outside their traditional areas. Nevertheless, most of the tribes have not lost their feeling of togetherness and are trying to preserve their tradition, even if the languages ​​have largely been lost. Since the Boldt Decision , the ruling of Judge George H. Boldt in 1974, they have been pursuing their land rights with legal vigor, but the government is working against it by means of hesitant recognition of status applications and recognition of tribes (cf. Duwamish ). In addition, the tribes are also trying to restore their fishing rights and regain their natural resources. This includes the renaturation of rivers or their protection as well as the dismantling of dams.

Salish Sea

The coastal Salish see themselves more and more clearly as a cross-border, cohesive group that has been developing a joint program to restore the natural environment and protect the remaining natural resources since 2008. To this end, numerous representatives of both Canadian and American Salish tribes gathered in the Tulalip reservation in Washington from February 27 to 29, 2008 . They take responsibility for the entire coastline claimed by the Salish tribes and consequently call it the Salish Sea .


A number of newsletters exist, as well as a regional newspaper , Khatou , which has been produced in Sechelt since 1982 . Radio programs like The Native Voice started as early as the 1940s. In the 1970s, Raven became the "official communications network" of the First Nations in British Columbia. It is thanks to these radio stations that Indian affairs, such as the blockade of a railway line in Vancouver in 1993, were announced and made public.

The Internet has only recently been taken seriously, but more and more tribal offices have DSL access. In the meantime, the tribes themselves are building their own homepage, which so far have only thought little of it.

Traditional territory: a contradiction and a key to understanding

In the Salish groups, the core of traditional social relationships that could shape an idea of ​​ownership of a region was based on kinship, annual migrations and ethical demands. The kinship lines in particular were basically free of spatial boundaries. This created a contradiction between the clear, cartographically fixed boundaries between the “tribes”, albeit with overlaps. Western ideas of property, residential area, identity and language collide with Salish ideas of kinship, ancestry, common use and cyclical annual migration, but also economic resources such as harvest areas, spiritual ideas, ancestors and myths.

Against the background of the negotiations between the Indians and British Columbia within the framework of the BC Treaty Process , strategies arose for the presentation of claims against the state, which resulted in an all too clear claim position. The aim is to clarify overlapping “boundaries” as soon as possible. At the same time, these claims have an effect on the Salish, whose ideas do not require such clarification. Borders are basically permeable, changeable and overlapping here.

In order to get a spatial idea, one would have to imagine the land littered with signs of use, at least rather than with border markings, fences or even barriers. Seen in this way, every flat representation of a tribal area, especially every “clarification” of the boundaries between the tribal groups, is an adaptation to European thinking. The Salish see their areas more as regional areas of responsibility that provide them with livelihoods, space for seasonal, natural migrations, rights of use and spiritual places. This creates a network of shared, kinship-based and rather selective responsibilities of manageable social groups.

The ethnographic approach to land management systems, on the other hand, looked at the jurisdiction of ethnic and residential groups with close relationships and land ownership. However, this included symbolic control through naming and stories indicating rights, through ritual and ecological knowledge and the exercise of actual control as well as the exclusion of others. This exclusion, including crossing certain areas, could be enforced by force if necessary.

The delimitation of core areas is usually still relatively easy. The groups living in an area owned common property, shared language, dialect or dialect. When there was overlap, a certain area belonged to different groups or they enjoyed certain rights there. These rights were constantly extended in their validity through rituals and ceremonies and more or less publicly made clear. These rights belonged to certain ancestors who have passed them on to today's people. Territories thus become spaces for itineraries along inherited rights and obligations. In this way, several tribes can share an area or a specific site.

Beyond these narrower areas there is the area of ​​available kinship far into "foreign" areas, the common defense area, the catchment area of ​​regular potlatches , the areas of canoeing competitions, the traditional travel and trading area, which create common ground. This creates a system of interlocking “boundaries”.

There is also another construct, namely the term “traditional”. It gives the impression of a fixed, immovable destiny in an area in which, even before the European mass immigration, there was a high fluctuation with flexible claims.

Territory is in a sense not a relationship to a raw material, but a way of organizing relationships and sharing relationships. The way in which the roles of guest and host are perceived is an external expression of this cultivation of relationships.

With the Cowichan , the term for border is accordingly xutsten , something like sign, mark, indicator. The term q'uluxutstun also exists, which means something like fence or fencing. But these fences were only intended for animals.

The Indian Act separated not only tribes but also Indians within the reservations (on reserve) and outside (off reserve), thus creating new social boundaries exclusively along the foreign construct of the (reservation) border. In addition, people who had relatives in different tribes suddenly found themselves assigned to only one of these groups. Hence the statistical problems that the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs has, which always differentiates exactly who lives inside and who outside of the reservation, and above all who lives in “other” reservations. Against this background, a downright nonsensical category, which nonetheless had its effects. For a long time, only those Indians who were registered in the reservation and had the formal status of an Indian were allowed to participate in the elections for chiefs .

Relatives used to be a prerequisite for traveling at all. You only had to show relatives at the destination. A social world whose main criterion is kinship is constantly colliding with reservation borders, territories, international borders, especially those between Canada and the USA.

Borders become virulent when it comes to the overexploitation of natural resources. Occasionally, the neighbors are locked out to prevent overfishing. But they also create an imposed distance between the tribes.

When the northern tribes came south on one of their slave hunts, they first encountered the Lyackson . The Chemainus brought the survivors to them. When the descendants of these survivors were attacked by typhus , they fled to Gabriola Island , to False Narrows. There they buried the dead and those who had died along the way. Lyackson graves are still there today. The descendants, who had long been part of the Chemainus, always referred in their reports and stories from the fact that these Lyackson were their ancestors. There was her ritual mask and from there the song for the mask dance comes. It was always clear that there were no different nations, but that kinship connected everyone with everyone. If there was a visitor from another kinship group, then he belonged to the family. Some even had an entire house kept free in case they came to visit.

So for some, borders are a colonial strategy. Indian Affairs tries to convince the Salish that they belong to only one tribe, but that is almost never the case. "Am I going to be divorced from all my family ties?" Asked one of the Salish, considering that he had ancestors from half a dozen different Salish tribes.

Some of the tribes are defined by the Indian Act , such as the Tsawwassen or Snuneymuxw First Nation, others are more part of a linguistic or cultural group, such as the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group , and still others are political alliances that cross cultural or linguistic boundaries. like the Te'mexw Treaty Association . This contradicts the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People of 1996. They wanted to put the emphasis on self-defined Aboriginal Nations .

The coastal Salish tried to express their territorial claims in such a way that they fit into the world of administrative organizations, but at the same time to convey the multifaceted relationship with the land. In doing so, they were often based on the drainage areas of rivers in which they lived.

In 2001 the Hul'qumi'num community drafted a map that included marine territories. The naming as s'olh tumuhw or stl'ulnup caused great difficulties, as they accentuate the meaning of the term area differently. The latter term emphasizes much more the idea that everything in the ground is also subject to the claim.

But there are fears that kinship as a principle will be weakened, while the restriction to rights in a limited area will be strengthened. Others fear that the Roman tactic of " divide et impera ", the division of the Salish area, sharply defines and delimits each individual tribe, which means that each individual tribe stands for itself (against the government), but that at the same time animosity could easily arise among each other. In addition, the place is fixed forever for future generations, no matter how numerous the descendants may be.

The coastal Salish map, however, outlines a line around all Salish areas. There you will find indications of linguistic differences, such as the Island, Downriver and Upriver Halkomelem or lines to hunting and trading areas such as Kamloops, Yakima and Warm Springs in Oregon . But this huge claim met with resistance from the Salish and above all the government. Perhaps tribal line overlaps can be viewed as broad zones of inclusion, recognition, and reciprocity.


  • Homer G. Barnett: The Coast Salish of British Columbia (= University of Oregon Monographs. Studies in Anthropology. 4, ZDB -ID 767904-x ). University of Oregon, Eugene OR 1955.
  • Joanne Drake-Terry: The Same as Yesterday. The Lillooet Chronicle of the Theft of Their Lands and Resources. Lillooet Tribal Council, Lillooet 1989, ISBN 0-88925-925-9 .
  • Darwin Hanna, Mamie Henry (Ed.): Our Tellings. Interior Salish Stories of the Nlhaʾkápmx People. UBC Press, Vancouver 1995, ISBN 0-7748-0525-0 .
  • Charles Hill-Tout : The Salish People. Edited with an Introduction by Ralph Maud. Talonbooks, Vancouver 1978; of which to the coastal Salish:
  • Diamond Jenness: The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian. (Imprinted: Wayne Suttles: Katzie ethnographic notes. ) (= Anthropology in British Columbia. Memoir. 2/3, ZDB -ID 2262664-5 ). British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria 1955.
  • Anita Pascoe: Recapturing the History and Rights of First Nations Peoples of British Columbia: A Political Analysis of Past and Present Relationships with the Dominion of Canada. Victoria o. J., ( online (PDF file; 1.18 MB) ).
  • Wayne Suttles: Coast Salish Essays. Talonbooks et al., Vancouver 1987, ISBN 0-88922-245-2 .
  • Wayne Suttles (Ed.): Northwest Coast (= Handbook of North American Indians . Vol. 7). Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 1990, ISBN 0-87474-187-4 .
  • Paul Tennant: Aboriginal Peoples and Politics. The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849–1989. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver 1990, ISBN 0-7748-0369-X .

Web links

Commons : Coastal Salish  - Collection of Images, Videos, and Audio Files

See also


  1. To get a first impression of the pronunciation of certain names in the Lushootseed, you can listen to Chief Seattle - his Lushootseed name and other important words pronounced in Lushootseed by Vi Hilbert (Interview with Vi Hilbert) , which was written in 2006.
  2. On the meaning of slavery cf. Leland Donald: Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. University of California Press, Berkeley CA et al. 1997, ISBN 0-520-20616-9 .
  3. See Eric McLay: Archaeological Heritage of the Southern Gulf Islands. In: The Midden. Vol. 36, No. 3/4, 2004, ZDB -ID 919926-3 , pp. 12-17 . For the location of the archaeological sites, cf. (PDF).
  4. The judicial decision can be found here ( memento of the original from September 23, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF 516 kB). @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  5. A separate homepage is currently being developed for this annual meeting: .
  6. Hill-Tout (1858-1944), prepared his four-volume study on the Salish 1885-1911.