Coast Salish Architecture

Nineteenth century Coast Salish houses are typified by a single-pitch shed roof over horizontal plank walls which are situated parallel to the waterfront. The higher side of the pitched roof is either facing the water, or opposite the prevailing winds in the village. Salish houses are probably the most flexible of all the Northwest Coast housing, in that they are composed of linear post and beam modules, and can be added onto at both ends of the house whenever space is required for a new household related to the father’s or mother’s line. Therefore, Salish houses can be extremely long and narrow, in which case the interior apartments are spread out along both long walls, with a central aisle in between.

Enlargement: Shed roof house at Comiaken Village. Photo: F. Dally, ca. 1869. B.C. Archives PN6481
Model of a Coast Salish house by Bill Holm. Burke Museum, Seattle, Washington.

The chief’s module is in the centre of the house and can be up to 90 feet long. Social position within the clan can be inferred from one’s proximity to the chief’s room. Unlike all of the other groups on the Northwest Coast, the Coast Salish show no concern with displaying their rank, status or wealth on the exterior of their houses. Any totemic or crest carvings or paintings are usually located inside the house, representing the “spirit guardian” of the head of the household, and thus are closely guarded secrets. For this reason, Salish families might often change houses, and there is great diversity in both their size and design.

Some of the best-documented Coast Salish shed houses were located along the banks of the lower Fraser River and around the foreshore of Puget Sound.  The structure of a Salish house consists of two rows of posts, 2-3 feet wide and 6-8 inches thick. These posts were placed 12-14 feet apart, with the shorter ones at the rear of the house. Roundwood beams, often more than 2 feet in diameter, spanned the width of the house, which varied from 25-60 feet. A lattice of small roundwood rafters was constructed at right angles and tied with withes to these beams.

Cedar roof planks about 3 feet wide were laid overlapping the rows of rafters and were bound to them with Cedar bark ties. These roof planks were often gouged out on one face to both overlap and interlock so as to provide watertight drainage off the shed roof. The roof was held down with either rocks or small logs laid along its length. Likewise, the horizontal wall planks were tied with withes between pairs of saplings, and would be removed from the post and beam frame and transported by canoe to standing frames at summer harvesting camps. The exterior walls were not connected in any way to the post and beam structure, thereby becoming the first curtain walls in the world. The horizontal boards were gouged out on one or both sides to overlap and attach from the bottom up. However, the lowest board was always placed above ground level, creating a gap at the bottom of the exterior wall which allowed the cooking fires inside to draw in outside air and keep the dirt floors dry. In the few cases where Coast Salish houses used vertical siding, the planks were anchored in the ground.

On the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, the floors of Coast Salish houses were often excavated. However, in most cases the floors were merely tamped earth covered with sand, with a 3-4 foot wide sleeping bench along the interior of the exterior walls. Individual family spaces were delineated with horizontal cedar planks or hanging mats. Coast Salish houses had no windows, and were lit only by a front doorway cut into one corner of the façade, and a second, rear entry. Cedar planks suspended by cedar ties were hung from a transom to act as a movable door, or plank barricades were built inside the entry for defense and to block out the wind and rain. The exterior walls of a Coast Salish house were insulated on the inside with either bark or woven mats, and household goods and foodstuffs were both stored under the sleeping bench and hung from the rafters.

The fire pit in a Coast Salish houses was located in a central position if there were only a few families living in the house. However, as the families grew in number and the length of the house increased, fire pits were located in the four corners of the building, or along both sides of the long central aisle. Smoke holes were achieved in the roof by  temporarily moving the roof planks aside.

Interior of Clallum winter Lodge. Painting by Paul Kane, 1846. National Gallery of Canada.

The Coast Salish people were actively involved in trade, but were also frequently the victims of raids and war with groups from the Central and North Coast. For this reason, Salish villages were situated so they could be easily defended, taking full advantage of natural ocean or rock barriers. Villages were often also fortified, with 14 foot palisade walls piled with boulders to throw down onto the invaders. They also sometimes built elaborate networks of secret underground tunnels for escape and to connect to underground hideaways with bunks and provisions.

Coast Salish summer camps were used for hunting, fishing and gathering of certain roots, berries, and bulbs. At these camps, a tent-like ridgepole would be erected either on a tripod of saplings or two larger sticks with forks in them, against which planks would be leaned or woven mats stretched out and anchored with rocks. Another form of summer housing was the “kekuli”, or quiggly hole pit house, very similar to those used by the Interior Salish.

Coast Salish-speaking peoples built a variety of styles of large houses after European contact. Houseposts were often carved and shown both on the interior and exterior of the house. In the southern reaches of the Coast Salish people, large potlatch houses or community feast halls were built either with flat, mansard (hip) or gabled roofs. The latter two types were often framed like the old shed roof structures, but with a gabled superstructure of poles resting on the heavier posts and beams. These three roof styles were freely mixed but some people came to use the gable roof exclusively. Today, most Coast Salish people live in Western-style, single-family housing. Large extended family houses, such a those described above, are still being used and buil by Coast Salish people using a mix of Western and Indigenous technologies. However, they are  often used for large family and community gatherings and not as a primary residence.

A battle between the Clallam and Makah along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From a painting by Paul Kane, ca. 1846. ROM.

Textual information for this page: Nabakov and Easton, 1989; Suttles, 1990.