The Coast Salish woolly dog, extinct more than a century ago, was a unique breed that was carefully managed for thousands of years by First Nations for its fiber, which was used in blankets and clothing, according to a new genetic study of the Smithsonian Museum. of Natural History.

The shaggy dogs were kept isolated on small islands in corrals and longhouses throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Vancouver Island, to preserve the breed and prevent mixing with village and hunting dogs.

Anthropologist Logan Kistler and molecular biologist Audrey Lin analyzed genetic samples preserved in the fur of a shaggy dog ​​named Mutton, the only known fleece in the world, stored at the Smithsonian, to identify the genes responsible for the valuable fiber.

Based on genetic data, the woolly dog ​​diverged from other breeds as far back as 5,000 years ago, aligning with archaeological remains discovered across the island and in the Pacific Northwest and high above the Fraser River.

Mutton's fur came from a naturalist who worked on a team that established the Canada-US border in 1859. The dog's DNA showed that 85% of its ancestry could be linked to pre-colonial dogs.

A natural history illustrator created a reconstruction of what Mutton would have looked like in the 1850s: he stood knee-length and had white or light brown hair.

The genetic study included interviews with several Coast Salish co-authors, such as elders and master weavers, who provided insight into the role played by shaggy dogs. Iain McKechnie, a coastal archaeologist at the University of Victoria, was the only bone scientist on the study, whose findings were published this week in the journal Science.

“The traditional Coast Salish perspective was the entire context for understanding the study’s findings,” said Kistler, curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, based in Washington, D.C.

Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa, a retired research associate at Vancouver Island University and a collaborator on the study as an expert on historical textiles, said the research was a case of “science finally catching up with the widely known First Nations oral history and proving it.”

She said Nanaimo First Nations regularly traded with Lower Mainland nations “equal bales” of dog wool for mountain goat fiber, and the practice extended south to nations in the Victoria and Sydney areas that also bred dogs. furry. Hammond-Kaarremaa said the First Nations knew how to spin wool into yarn.

Eliot White-Hill of the Snuneymuxw First Nation said the furry dog ​​played a significant role in his country's history and culture. A rocky outcrop in central Nanaimo called Cameron Island was known as Sqwiqwi', meaning Place of the Woolly Dog, where dogs were kept and cared for near the village of Snuneymuxw.

White-Hill said dogs were revered and passed down from mothers to daughters, who took care of the breeding and the shearing and weaving. “They were shorn like sheep and the wool was woven into blankets,” White-Hill said. “Blankets were like currency in our pre-contact economy and some of the most important things you could own and give as gifts.”

Violet Elliott, also of Snuneymuxw, said blankets made from dog and mountain goat wool fibers – acquired through trade with Lower Mainland nations – played a key role in gatherings of nations from the Island, Washington state and the continent for name ceremonies and long weddings. before the colonists disembarked.

“These dogs were beloved and our ancestors did everything we could to keep them separate from other dogs,” said Elliot, who comes from a long line of weavers. Her grandfather told her that before the 1800s, an ancestor was creating so many wool blankets for dogs that they were given the nickname Cuqnwtun, translated as Blanket Pin, the carved wooden pins that hold the blankets together as they weave.

Elliot called the Smithsonian genetic study “an early Christmas present.”

“It brought together a great group of people who reaffirmed for us the history we know,” she said. “It was a gift of collaboration with other nations.”

It's unclear what led to the shaggy dog's demise — Mutton's genetics told researchers little about what caused the dogs' decline and disappearance. Some speculate that the arrival of Hudson's Bay Company blankets in the early 19th century made shaggy dogs expendable.

But Michael Pavel, an elder from the Skokomish Nation in Washington who was involved in the study, says it's unlikely that such a central part of Coast Salish society could be replaced by machine-made blankets.

Pavel and others suggest that shaggy dogs were likely doomed by several factors after the arrival of European settlers, including smallpox epidemics, influxes of miners during the 1858 Gold Rush, and colonial policies that forced assimilation and displacement.

The study states that the Indian Act of 1876 played an important role because it prohibited indigenous women – chief caretakers of shaggy dogs – from participating in local governance and restricted their movements. Mandatory residential schooling that took children away from their families also disrupted the “transfer of knowledge” about dog breeding and weaving, the report states.

Sto:lo elder Rena Point Bolton, 95, remembers how her great-grandmother had furry dogs but was forced to abandon them: “They were told they couldn't do their cultural activities. There were the police, the Indian Agent and the priests. Dogs were not allowed. She had to get rid of the dogs.”

Eliot-Hill, 28, an artist who is working with the elder Gary Manson on a children's book about the shaggy dog, has no doubt that colonization and assimilation were to blame, saying dogs were probably banned as part of potlatch ceremonies. and possibly exterminated in some villages.

Lin said the loss of the furry dogs was quick. “There were thousands of years of very careful maintenance, lost in a few generations,” she said.

She noted that Mutton lived decades after the introduction of European dog breeds, meaning that Coast Salish communities likely continued to maintain the unique genetic makeup of shaggy dogs until shortly before the dogs were exterminated.

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