Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
“One of our Elders wrote, if there was an emergency, a woman would grab her woolly dog and her child and that’s the only two things,” said Squamish Nation member Senaqwila Wyss, demonstrating the cultural significance of the now extinct woolly dog to the Coast Salish Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest.
Wyss was one of several Coast Salish people who worked with researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, anthropologist Logan Kistler and evolutionary molecular biologist Audrey Lin, to conduct a years-long study of a 160-year-old woolly dog pelt called Mutton, which was found within the museum’s vast collection.
It’s the only known woolly dog fleece in the world and the researchers sought to pinpoint a genetic understanding of the dog and its prized woolly fur, which was the traditional material used for weaving blankets, sweaters, capes and other garments for thousands of years.
Woolly dogs were similar in size to a fox, or Spitz breed, but it had a unique double coat of white fur, much like any of the Alaskan breeds. This means woolly dogs had two layers of fur; the first being longer hair and the second being shorter more woolly-textured fur.
The Salish communities across the west coast of Washington State and British Columbia bred these dogs carefully and sheared them like sheep.
“In many communities, most of the fibers (used in weaving) would have been woolly dog or mountain goat, and then there would be plant fibers mixed in,” said Wyss.
Mutton’s pelt had been rediscovered in 2000, prompting Lin to begin putting together a team of researchers. The museum had originally received the pelt from the dog’s owner George Gibbs, a naturalist and ethnographer.
Gibbs had worked on the Northwest Boundary Survey expedition to map the land between British Columbia in Canada and the United States to designate the border between the two countries. It is believed it was during this time that Gibbs took possession of Mutton when he was just a puppy.
In 1859, when Mutton died, Gibbs sent his pelt to the Smithsonian Institute, which had been established in 1846. It’s the world’s largest museum, education centre and research facility and estimated to house about 154-million items.
Through the Indigenous concept known as “two-eyed seeing”, the group of scientists and Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers and master weavers, learned from Mutton, with “the combined strengths of Indigenous knowledge and western science.”
Lin, now a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, said without the oral histories and knowledge that the Elders and knowledge keepers shared, researchers “wouldn’t have understood what we were looking at, basically” and it would have been extremely difficult to create a full picture of Mutton.
“We were very excited to participate in a study that embraces the most sophisticated Western science with the most established traditional knowledge,” Michael Pavel, an Elder from the Skokomish/Twana Coast Salish community in Washington, said in a press statement. He remembers hearing about woolly dogs early in his childhood. “It was incredibly rewarding to contribute to this effort to embrace and celebrate our understanding of the woolly dog.”
In the first meeting held over Zoom, the Coast Salish group, Lin and the other scientists were given the opportunity to see Mutton’s fur under a microscope.
“I think that we were incredibly curious about every part of Mutton,” Lin said. “We were all together around Mutton, and everybody was looking, peering very, very closely at the fibers, you know, with the magnifying glasses, and just sharing our impressions and also sharing stories.”
Throughout the investigation, the team systematically analyzed Mutton’s genetic code, the genetic material in his cells, called genomes, and compared it against historic and modern breeds of dogs to discover the distinct attributes of woolly dogs.
More than 11,000 different genomes in Mutton’s genes were analyzed to determine what characteristics gave woolly dogs their fluffy fleece and wool fibers.
“It has really incredible, special properties,” said Lin. “Its texture, it wants to clump together.”
The team estimated that woolly dogs diverged from other breeds up to 5,000 years ago. The findings outline that 85 per cent of Mutton’s ancestry was genetically similar to pre-colonial dogs from Newfoundland and British Columbia.
They also identified 28 genes linked to hair growth and follicle regeneration, including one that causes a woolly hair phenotype in humans, and another linked to curly hair in other dogs. Similar genes were even activated in the genomes of woolly mammoths, reads the press statement.
Woolly dog ancestry is surprising because Mutton lived decades after the introduction of European dog breeds in the region. “This makes it likely that Coast Salish communities continued to maintain woolly dogs’ unique genetic makeup until right before the dogs were wiped out,” reads the press statement.
It is believed woolly dogs went extinct in the third quarter of the 19th century during colonization.
Through cultural teachings shared by the Coast Salish, the researchers learned that the matriarchs of the communities kept the dogs in their homes separated from other dogs, including those used for hunting. This was done to restrict and carefully manage woolly dog breeding. The dogs possessed “spiritual significance and were often treated as beloved family members.”
In some areas it is said the dogs were kept on islands not far from the communities in an effort to preserve their unique qualities.
“Woolly dogs were the only animals allowed inside of the longhouses,” explained Wyss. “There's also, coastal and interior, different Salish people, that had different ways of keeping them. Some were on special isolated islands or in a special kind of cave-dwelling. Or, in the interior, there's more of an underground half-above and half-underneath-the ground dwellings there (where the dogs would be kept). So, there were ways of keeping them separated …”
Researchers also identified certain chemical signatures called isotopes in Mutton’s pelt to learn what woolly dogs were fed. They were given special diets of fine-cut meats, salmon and elk.
Some scholars have speculated that machine-made blankets brought to the region in the early 19th century made woolly dogs expendable and that led to their extinction, but experts have cast doubt that such an important part of Coast Salish society would have been doomed by such a thing.
Colonial policies of forced assimilation, displacement and cultural genocide were more likely to have led to the breed demise, making it “increasingly difficult or forbidden for Coast Salish communities to maintain their woolly dogs.”
“It's like, if the federal Indian agents came, we would have to basically follow their rules of having our homes inspected, or the dogs were forced to be let go,” explained Wyss.
Providing woolly dogs with their specialized diet would have also been gravely impacted by colonialism.
“I really like to point out to people that the woolly dogs were not brought to extinction because of accidentally breeding with the new dog breed that was introduced (by Europeans),” Wyss said. “We were forced to give up our relationship through residential schools, through the Potlatch Ban, through being banned from fishing. So, when we're not allowed to go fishing to provide food for our families and for our woolly dogs, that's a larger part than it just being an accidental mistake for them to not be raised anymore. So just showing other parts of genocide around the world, from buffaloes being slaughtered as kind of control over Indigenous people, it is a very similar thing that happened with our woolly dogs here.”
Lin said “It was thousands of years of very careful maintenance lost within a couple of generations. Thousands of years of this tradition just gone. Doing anything in the traditional Indigenous way was criminalized.”
Wyss also explained that when colonization occurred, the colonizers had a very different view of the role of women within a community.
“I think another factor, which is related to the cultural repression, is disempowering the women in the communities because it was the high-ranking women who were keeping the woolly dogs and… this is not the way that the missionaries or the Canadian government had wanted it. They didn’t want that. So, taking the power away from the women was another factor.”
Many questions have been answered through the research of Mutton, but still more questions have arisen. So the team hopes to continue researching Mutton and other woolly dog artifacts.
“One big hope is that there's also, probably, museums around the world who most likely, in their collections, have woolly dog hair blankets. I think that it would be amazing to have any of those pieces brought back to our area,” said Wyss, adding if there were more specimens to study from other woolly dogs that even more discoveries would be made about the history of this dog breed.
The study on the woolly dog was published Dec. 14 in the journal Science.
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