Coast Salish Wool Dog
We were standing in a cold wind at Neck Point when the conversation turned to Canadian symbols. We ran through all the obvious from maple leaves and Mounties, from beavers and bears and all of nature. But what would be the quintessential Vancouver Island symbol?
Onward we went throwing out idea after idea, most of which were influenced by the natural beauty surrounding us. The whale, the salmon, the eagle, the magnificent Douglas Fir and Red Cedar, oddball Arbutus and prehistoric looking Garry Oak; they all seemed appropriate but not iconic enough. That’s when the elderly couple arrived at the lookout wearing their Cowichan Sweaters. Why hadn’t we thought of that? After all you see Cowichan sweaters throughout history including this photo of Cecil Merritt (awarded the first Victoria Cross in the Second World War) taken while a prisoner of war in 1942.
The Coast Salish people had a long history of weaving before we Europeans came this way. They wove beautiful white, nobility blankets that played many roles in their life. They were used for ceremonies, currency, potlatch gifts, and dowries. The photo below is of Billy Yacklum of the Snuneymuxw First Nation wearing a beautiful example of a nobility blanket.
These nobility blankets were made from the white mountain goat wool but there are no mountain goats on the island meaning that all the white wool was imported. Then the day came when the Coast Salish identified a strain of white wooly dogs within the village pack. They separated the wool dogs by placing them on small islands, fed them primarily on fish and raised them for their white hair which was sheared once a year. Clear evidence that the Coast Salish people engaged in animal husbandry raising wool dogs specifically for their hair and the economic benefit it created.
In the 1850’s European settlers arrived in the Cowichan Valley bringing with them their sheep, and in a short time, knitting needles. In 1864, missionaries from Sisters of St. Ann (Victoria) arrived and began teaching the Cowichan women to knit.
The availability of wool from sheep meant there was no need for the wooly dogs who were left to the ways of the pack. We heard that the last true wooly dog descendant died in the 1940’s. But the Cowichan Sweater lived on, the perfect blending of form and function, waterproof and warm, and not one design alike. The colours all natural, the way the sheep wore them, all natural with no dyes. In our mind this may be the closest thing that we Islanders have to traditional dress.
And as with everything true and beautiful there comes business people who produce fakes for profit. As the past Cowichan Tribes manager, Ernest Elliot said, “Anything that tries to resemble a genuine Cowichan sweater is a fake.” This became clearly evident when our Government thought it a good idea to have the Cowichan people produce authentic sweaters for sale to the world during the winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Although the Cowichan people were able and ready to fulfill the Olympic request it was ultimately felt that the Cowichan people couldn’t produce the required numbers on time so the sweaters were produced in China.
I must say that the ugly maroon sweaters delivered must have made a few heads turn but it did nothing to assist those that have made the sweaters a Canadian icon.
It all comes down to buyer beware as you can find cheap replicas (curling sweaters) that are much lighter than the real product which are from 3 to 5 pounds.
Our advice is to make the voyage to Chemainus and purchase an authentic Cowichan sweater from a first nations knitter. You'll enjoy your sweater for a lifetime.