Coast Salish Essays


320 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88922-245-2
DDC 970





Reviewed by Edwin G. Higgins

Edwin G. Higgins was a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.


The sixteen essays in this collection make an important contribution to the knowledge of the Northwest Coast cultures. It provides a succinct summation of the author’s life work.

The essay about the Coast Salish makes interesting reading for anyone interested in the West Coast cultures in British Columbia. The contents are enriched by front and end maps delineating the language groups in the area. Also included are a number of black-and-white photographs of ceremonial paraphernalia, pictures of contributing Natives, and dance groups. The essay analyzes the Salish people’s social divisions of elite, lower-class, and slaves. The author describes the acquisition of wealth and its sharing, in the maintenance of the economic system. The importance of the potlatch in sharing access to resources, establishing status, and reinforcing the extended family is stressed. Suttles gives a lucid and convincing explanation of the role the potlatch played in the underlying West Coast economic system.

While the author makes some exception of the Haida and Kwakiutl due to their area environment, he questions the ease and security of the Coast Salish due to the coast variation and climatic differences from the exposed west coast of Vancouver Island to the lower and higher reaches of the Fraser River and plateau country. The importance of women is stressed in food, storage, and gathering of berries, roots, camas, and wapita foods.

An interesting chapter is devoted to the various dialects of the Salish, particularly the myths and legends of the Sasquatch. Arts, crafts, ceremonial paraphernalia, shamans, and winter dancing are treated but not rated as highly as that of the Kwakiutl, the Haida, or the Tlingit. The effects of white contacts and the diet are given interesting comparisons. The beliefs in origins, a spirit known as the Transformer, when humans and animals were segregated, the spirit dance, and the retention of the native culture are combined in a later chapter.

The essays conclude with a linguistic analysis of the West Coast languages and an attempt to determine the origin of the various groups. This includes fascinating unanswered questions. “The Salish groups had a small woolly breed of dogs that could be sheared or plucked” (for wearing). Now human occupation on the lower Fraser delta and large shell middens imply large winter villages of 5000 years ago. This suggests the theory that the coast was settled by occupants when the ocean was much lower, by a southward drift of hunters at least 12,000 years ago, a theory in radical contrast to the view of more recent penetration up the Mackenzie Valley and westward from plateau country. And Suttles’s linguistic analysis produces this revolutionary conclusion: “The simple hypothesis would put the Algonkin-Wakashan homeland on the southern North-west Coast and send a late movement eastward across the Rockies to become the Algonquian family.”

This collection of essays is a credit to the careful research of the author. It is an informed, persuasive wealth of information.


Suttles, Wayne, “Coast Salish Essays,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 28, 2024,