Traditionally, the lands inhabited by the Central Coast Salish in Canada and the United States included both sides of the southern Strait of Georgia, the San Juan Islands, the extreme northwest part of Washington east of the strait, and parts of the northern Olympic Peninsula. The region is generally wet and moderate, although it includes some drier and cooler regions. Most contemporary Central Coast Salish Indians live on reserves or reservations in or near their aboriginal lands or in cities of the Northwest. The Central Coast Salish population stood at roughly 20,000 in the mideighteenth century. Central Coast Salish, which includes the Squamish, Nooksack, Klallam, Halkomelem, and Northern Straits (Lkungen) languages, is a member of the central division of the Salishan language family.
Central Coast Salish recognized a mythological time when their legendary ancestors lived. They believed that people are composed of several components, one or more of which might occasionally get lost or lured away and had to be restored by shamans. In their everyday lives, they made a distinction between what was considered normal and anything that might connote danger or power (such as a deformed person, a menstruating woman, or a corpse). People sought luck or skills from an encounter with a spirit. An accompanying song provided direct access to the spirit's power.
The shamans' spirit helpers gave special powers. Men and women could be shamans. Curing, the province of shamans, entailed singing, drama, and extracting a harmful entity with the hands and mouth. Some shamans could also foretell the future. Spells or incantations were also believed to carry power. Most people used them to help perform a task, but people highly skilled in such matters could be hired for special occasions.
Intra- and intervillage spirit dances took place in the winter. The host provided food, and dancers danced their spirit songs, of which there were several categories. Dances and songs were accompanied by much ritual paraphernalia. Secret societies also held their dances in the winter. Their main ceremony was initiating new members; the right to membership was hereditary. Central Coast Salish people also observed first salmon ceremonies (the ritualistic preparation and consumption of the season's first catch). Cleansing rituals were made both to erase a disgrace and to enhance a festive occasion.
Each group lived in a number of villages. Heads of the leading or established household served as local group chiefs. As such, they had little or no power to govern; they were wealthy and influential men who entertained guests, made decisions about subsistence activity, and arbitrated disputes.
Several extended families made up a household, which owned particular subsistence areas and tools, such as clam beds and fowl nets. Some particularly prestigious households, or "houses" (in the European sense), descended from a notable ancestor and shared resources, names, ceremonies, and other valuables. Some local groups may have had their own winter villages, although larger villages included several local groups. Members of different households cooperated in some activities such as deer drives, building a salmon weir, ceremonies, and defense, but they were not necessarily culturally homogeneous. There was little intervillage cooperation. Social groups included worthy people (those with wealth, ancestry, manners, and guardian spirits), worthless people, and slaves.
The Central Coast Salish intermarried within the village and outside it. Marriages involved ritual exchanges and promoted trade. They were initiated by men; women could refuse, but they felt pressure to marry "well." A wedding usually entailed the exchange of gifts (material and/or hereditary privileges) and a cleansing ceremony. Exchanges of food and gifts between families-in-law continued throughout the marriage.
From an early age, children were "toughened" by swimming in icy water and running in storms. This process culminated in the adolescent spirit quest. Boys marked puberty by making their first kill. If possible, girls were feted with a feast and a display of hereditary privileges. They were secluded during their periods. Among the Cowichans, a girl undertook a solitary vigil; if she was joined by a boy, and their parents agreed, they could be married. Corpses were wrapped in blankets and placed in canoes or grave boxes. Among the worthy, bones were rewrapped several years later with an accompanying display of privileges.
Potlatches, as opposed to feasts, were usually held outdoors in good weather. Occasions included life crises and important life cycle or ceremonial events. Usually all or part of a village held the potlatch, with each house marking its own occasions. Goods were not expected to be returned: The point was status—that is, good relations with neighbors and good marriages for children.
Some hunters, on both land and sea, achieved a professional status and spent whole summers hunting. People generally spent the summers traveling in small groups, following seasonal food cycles and living in temporary dwellings. They enjoyed several gambling games, including the traditional hand and disk games. Sports included shinny (a variation of hockey), races, athletic competitions, and games of skill. Singing for pleasure was common.
Winter villages consisted of from one house to several rows of houses built on the beach. Houses were up to several hundred feet long. They had a permanent wooden framework with a shed roof with removable roof and wall planks. Each family had a separate fire. House posts were decorated with painted and carved images of ancestors and spirit powers. These people also built some fortified war refuges (stockades). Other structures included summer mat houses, wooden grave houses, and pole and mat sweat lodges.
Fish, especially salmon (of all species), was the staple food, although it was available to different people in different places at different times of the year. The leaner fall runs were dried for storage; otherwise fish was eaten fresh. Other important foods included sea mammals (seal and porpoise, used mostly for oil; sea lions; whales [Klallam]); shellfish; land mammals such as deer, elk, black bear, mountain goats, and beaver (smaller game as well as grizzlies, cougars, and wolves were generally avoided); waterfowl; and a large variety of plants. Camus, brake fern, wapato, and wild carrots were especially important, but other bulbs, roots, berries, sprouts, and stems were also used. Camus fields were burned and reseeded. Potato husbandry became important after 1800.
Fish were taken with reef nets, dip nets, trawl nets, harpoons, gaff hooks, spears, basket traps, weirs, tidal pounds (rows of underwater stakes), hooks, and herring rakes and in rectangular nets suspended between two canoes, a method by which several thousand fish a day might be captured. Harpoons, seal nets, and clubs served as marine mammal hunting equipment; land mammals were taken with pitfalls, snares, bow (2.5 to 3 feet, made of yew) and arrow, and spears. Waterfowl were snagged in permanent nets stretched across flyways. They were also hunted with bow and arrow, flares and nets at night, and snares.
Important raw materials included wood, hides, antler, horn, mountain goat wool, beaver teeth, wood stone, and shell. Wooden items included house materials, canoes, bent-corner boxes, dishes, tools, weapons, and ceremonial items. Shredded bark was used for towels, mattresses, and similar items. Sewn mats of cattail leaves and tule lined the interior house walls, covered the frames of summer shelters, and were made into mattresses, rain covers, and sitting or kneeling pads. Women made several types of baskets, including wrapped lattice, coiled, twined, and woven. They practiced a distinctive form of weaving, spinning wool from a special breed of dog (now extinct) plus mountain goat wool, waterfowl down, and fireweed cotton on a large spindle and weaving it on a two-bar loom.
The Central Coast Salish fought wars among themselves, with their neighbors, and with more distant neighbors. Injury and death, intentional or not, demanded compensation. Refusal to pay might lead to fighting, and some groups, such as the Klallams, saw compensation as dishonorable. The Klallams were particularly aggressive; the impaled heads of their foes, often Snohomish, Cowichans, or Duwamish, often decorated their beaches. There was some naval warfare, in which canoes rammed and sank other canoes. At least in the early nineteenth century, the Lekwiltoks (Kwakiutls) were a common enemy.
Raids, for loot, territory, vengeance, or a show of power, were led by professional warriors with special powers. Raids featured surprise attacks. Men were killed, and women and children were captured, later to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Warriors wore elk hide armor.