In the lush coastal regions of what is now Washington state and southwestern British Columbia, a unique breed of dog once thrived. Known for their long, wool-like hair, these “woolly dogs” were not just pets but a vital part of the community’s textile tradition.
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However, by the turn of the 20th century, these dogs had vanished, leaving behind only stories and a single pelt named Mutton, preserved at the Smithsonian Institution since 1859.
Recent research has shed light on the mysterious disappearance of the woolly dogs, challenging previous notions that they were simply replaced by cheaper, mass-produced blankets from companies like Hudson’s Bay.
Instead, interviews with Coast Salish elders and analysis of historical documents reveal a darker cause: colonialism and its repressive policies that sought to suppress Indigenous cultural practices.
The woolly dogs, which were larger than modern American Eskimo dogs and known for their curled tails and foxlike faces, played a multifaceted role in Coast Salish society. High-status women bred and cared for these dogs, and their wealth was often measured by the number of woolly dogs they owned.
The dogs’ hair was woven into blankets that carried significant cultural and spiritual value, serving as important trade and gift items.
The decline of the woolly dogs coincided with the arrival of European settlers and the imposition of colonial rule. As Stolo Nation elder Xweliqwiya Rena Point Bolton recounted, Indigenous peoples were forced to abandon their cultural practices, including the keeping of woolly dogs. This loss was not due to a preference for European goods but rather a consequence of cultural repression.
Mutton’s pelt has become a key piece in unraveling the history of these dogs. Through a combination of stable isotope analysis and genetic testing, scientists have discovered that Mutton’s lineage dates back thousands of years, indicating a long history of selective breeding by the Coast Salish peoples.
Despite the influx of European settlers, Mutton’s DNA showed that he retained a strong precolonial genetic heritage, although about one-eighth of his genome revealed traces of European dog ancestry.
The research team, which included non-Indigenous scientists and Indigenous knowledge keepers, employed a “Two-Eyed Seeing” approach, integrating Indigenous knowledge with Western science to reconstruct the woolly dog’s story.
This collaborative effort has not only provided scientific validation of the Coast Salish oral traditions but also offered a glimpse into the sophisticated breeding practices that produced such a distinctive breed.
Their extinction was not a simple matter of economic change but a casualty of the broader forces of colonialism that sought to erase Indigenous ways of life.