Proteomics and Coast Salish Blankets: A Tale of Shaggy Dogs?

Article excerpt



Protein mass spectrometry, already successfully applied to materials such as archaeological seeds and paint binders (Cappellini et al. 2009; Chambery et al. 2009; Fremout et al. 2010), is a useful new tool for the study of textiles, and indeed cultural artefacts composed of proteins (for example silk, wool, ivory, leather, bone, parchment), in which the original source of production is difficult to identify. It has advantages over conventional microscopic methods (Wortmann et al. 2003), when only small sample sizes (mg) are available and in cases in which mechanical or chemical damage may have altered the morphology of the fibres. Finding specific peptides is the key for a rapid and unambiguous identification (Buckley et al. 2009, 2010).

Here we show how the analysis of some significant Coast Salish textiles from the Smithsonian's NMNH and NMAI collections, representing different styles and periods, has confirmed an important aspect of the Coast Salish oral tradition by corroborating the regular use of dog hair in traditional weaving. Despite the minute quantities of fibres used, the analytical sensitivity of the instrumentation was able to reveal not only the use of dog hair but also the unexpected importance of sheep wool in the Salish weaving tradition.

The people

The Coast Salish peoples, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest coastal areas of northern Washington and southern British Columbia (Figure 1) have an ancient weaving tradition notable for large, finely woven blankets (Hill-Tout 1907; Ashwell 1978) made of animal fibres (Figures 2-4), sometimes supplemented by vegetal fibres (hemp, stinging nettles) and bird down (Wells 1969). The blankets were important items in pre-contact times: their gift and distribution were present in all aspects of social life (Barnett 1938; Wells 1969; Ashwell 1978; Suttles 1987). Not just functional items, they served for ceremonial purpose at marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies and body wrapping (Mohs 1992). The primary source of traded wool used by the Coast Salish came from the dense white to yellow fleece of the mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). Absent from the homeland of the Coast Salish (Nagorsen & Keddie 2000), the fibre was traded with interior communities who collected it from the goats living in the Rocky and Cascade Mountains (Willoughby 1910; Amoss 1993).

Coast Salish oral history also has many allusions to a special dog locally bred until the mid nineteenth century for its woolly hair or fleece for use in the textile industry (Jones 2005). But the importance of dog fibre in Salish weaving has been questioned: a re- examination of over 100 textiles from Salish collections in 21 museums in North America and Europe, published in 1980 in Gustafson's book Salish weaving (Gustafson 1980), failed to identify any dog hair fibres. However support for the dog hair hypothesis was produced through the analysis of a child burial blanket found near Yale (Fraser River, British Columbia), estimated to belong to the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Stable carbon isotope analysis concluded that the fibres were from an animal fed on a marine diet (Schulting 1994). Fish (especially salmon) and sea mammals (seals and porpoises) were the main source of food of the Coast Salish (Barnett 1938; Amoss 1993), and their dogs would have access to the same diet, quite unlike that of mountain goats. Salish weaving is also undergoing a resurgence; with this revival it is crucial to have the history of the use of dog hair confirmed. Because of their colour and structure (Gibbs 1877; Olsen 1936; Kane 1971), woolly dog hair can easily be confused with that of the mountain goat (Willoughby 1910; Orchard 1926; Kissell 1929).


The woolly dog in historical accounts

The existence of a woolly dog is supported by historic accounts of eighteenth- century European explorers such as Cook and Galiano (Ledyard 1783; Howay 1918). …