Coast Salish

Approximate early 19th-century territory of the Central Coast Salish. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians. View Coast Salish in a larger map

The Salish language family represents a group of culturally diverse people who trace their origins back to a common source from time immemorial. The Salish language family is comprised of twenty-three distinct languages, which are spoken in interior and coastal British Columbia, the state of Washington and in small areas of Montana, Idaho and the Oregon Coast. The two main divisions of the Salish language - Coast and Interior - are representative of the two main culture areas.


The Coast Salish are located in British Columbia, Washington State, and as far south as Oregon. They are divided geographically into four groups: Northern, Central, Southwestern and Southern. Northern Coast Salish inhabit the Coastal Western Hemlock zone of Vancouver Island, which is south of Kwakwaka’wakw territory. Central Coast Salish inhabit southern British Columbia (including southern Vancouver Island), as well as northern Washington state and part of the Olympic Peninsula. Southwestern Coast Salish inhabit the pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula, and Southern Coast Salish inhabit the Puget Sound area.


Coast Salish is part of the Salishan language family. Many of the Coast Salish languages are falling out of use and risk becoming extinct. This has already occured with the Twana, Nooksack and Pentlatch dialects. The remaining Coast Salish languages include dialects of Comox, Sechelt, Squamish, Halkomelem, Lushootseed and Straits Salish, which includes both Northern Straits and Klallam.

Esquimalt house & Pole, 1920. Unknown photographer, RBCM.



Winter villages were always located near to water, with the buildings parallel to the shore. The dwellings were typically long cedar plank houses with a single sloped roof with the high side of the roof facing the water. Another style of house sometimes used was a gabled-roof plank house more associated with the Northern Coast Salish. House planks were removed from the winter structures and transported to the summer dwellings.

Houses were composed of extended families. Depending on the Coast Salish group, individual families were either given completely enclosed family compartments or reserved areas of the dwelling. These interior partitions were marked by the placement of a board screen or mat.

Northern groups like Comox and Pentlatch displayed family privileges through architecture and its decoration. Due to the importance of both social and ceremonial events such as potlatches and spirit dances, some structures were designed to expand in order to meet the requirements of such large events.

Cowichan dwelling. Photographer and year unknown.


Art styles of the Coast Salish differ immensely throughout the regions, but overall it is considered to be minimalist. Central Coast Salish groups are an exception to this having their own unique two-dimensional style. Anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric designs are commonly used in their art.

Coast Salish art was traditionally produced in association with ritual; ceremonial items, such as rattles of mountain sheep horn, were deeply incised with designs. Like other coastal groups, the Coast Salish also decorated utilitarian objects such as fish clubs, combs, spoons and spindle whorls. Among the Coast Salish, the creatures depicted on these objects are assumed to relate to the supernatural helpers of successful fishermen, and skilled spinners and weavers.

Examination of Coast Salish graphic art suggests an antiquated tradition of flat design, which may have formed the basis for the highly stylized and complex traditions among Northern groups. Other devices found in Coast Salish flat design are concentric circles, which may be precursors to the Northern ovoid.

Quamichan houseposts. Photographs by H.I. Smith, year unknown

Quamichan houseposts. Photographs by H.I. Smith, year unknown

Textual information for this page: Czaykowski & Kinkade, 1998; Jonaitis, 2006; Kennedy & Bouchard, 1990; Kroeber, 1999; Suttles, 1990; Thompson & Egesdal, 2008. Macnair et al, 1980.