Salish Woolly Dog Hair Discovered in Blanket at the Burke Museum
You may turn up your nose at the thought of blankets made with dog hair, but ancestors of the Coast Salish Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest actually bred dogs for the purpose of using their fur to spin yarn. Oral accounts passed down through generations told stories of the Salish woolly dog, a small, fluffy animal, and how the native people of the Pacific Northwest spun the hair into yarn for textile items such as blankets.
Along with the oral history, there are also written historical accounts: eighteenth-century explorer George Vancouver wrote in his journal that the coats of the Salish dogs were “a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine, long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.” Molecular analysis of Coast Salish items has confirmed the presence of dog hair in some textiles, and research has revealed that the Salish woolly dogs resembled the current Spitz breed, a fuzzy dog native to Finland.
Salish woolly dogs were raised apart from other dogs, and they were kept in corrals or even on small islands to prevent them from interbreeding with hunting dogs so their pure genes would remain and they would continue to grow fluffy coats. Weavers often combined the dog fiber with fiber from mountain goats to make mixed yarn, though the dog fiber was much easier to acquire than that of the mountain goat. Tribe members would have to trade with nearby tribes who had access to the goats.
The Salish woolly dog went extinct around 1900, within 150 years of European explorers reaching the area. Commercially made blankets became more accessible, which lessened the necessity of making blankets. Many communities also got wiped out by newly introduced diseases through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, disrupting cultural practices such as the breeding and raising of Salish woolly dogs. Few textile items remain today that contain woolly dog fiber, though a recent discovery at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington, has brought one into the limelight. The blanket is simple in design, and not much is known about its origins. Records only state that the blanket is from the “Coast Salish,” and it was owned by Judge James Wickersham who lived in Tacoma, Washington from 1883 to 1900. He collected Northwest Native objects, and after his death, the items were sold to a tourist store in Alaska. A collector found the items and donated them to the Burke Museum in 1975. Recently, a tear in the blanket revealed unique craftsmanship in the weaving structure that prompted researchers to take a deeper look. The weft fibers appeared to be neither mountain goat nor sheep wool, and testing confirmed that the blanket contains yarn made with woolly dog hair. The blanket at Burke Museum is the only known item in any Northwest museum to contain woolly dog hair. It was on display as part of the opening weekend for the Burke’s exhibit Testing, Testing 1-2-3 from June 17–18.
Featured Image: This oil painting called A Woman Weaving a Blanket by Paul Kane (1856) shows a Coast Salish woman weaving a blanket near a Salish woolly dog.
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