Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Woolly dogs

When I lived in Olympia, Washington, I knew a woman who was a professional spinner and weaver.  She made beautiful wearable items as well as decorative wall hangings, throw rugs, and blankets.

What's unusual about her is that among the many kinds of fiber she used was dog hair.  She owned three enormous (and extremely friendly and exuberant) Great Pyrenees, a breed with huge quantities of silky white hair, and she'd periodically brush their coats, wash the fur that came out, and spin it into thread.  She showed me a knit hat she'd made entirely from dog fur -- it was softer than angora.

Turns out, that region of the world has a long history of doing this.  A paper last week in Science looked at a legend amongst the Coast Salish, especially the Sto:lo, Skokomish, and Snuneymuxw tribes, of "woolly dogs" whose soft fur was spun, dyed, and woven into ceremonial rugs and cloaks that were a symbol of authority.  (My weaver friend in Washington didn't belong to this tradition -- she was from Luton, England -- although she may have gotten inspiration for it from Indigenous sources.  Or, maybe, she just owned three gigantic hairy dogs and came up with a way to use the copious fur they produced.  I'm not sure.)

In any case, the people of European descent who settled in the Northwest thought this was just a legend -- that any dogs belonging to the Coast Salish were very recent imports, possibly the descendants of dogs brought in by whalers and explorers from Japan or Russia.  In any case, the woolly dogs of the Salish had completely vanished by 1900, so it seemed like there was no way to be sure.  But there was one hard piece of evidence to study -- the pelt of a dog named Mutton who had been acquired as a puppy by an ethnographer in 1859.

Artist's rendition of what Mutton looked like [Image courtesy of Science and artist Karen Carr]

DNA analysis of Mutton's pelt showed something fascinating -- he wasn't closely related to Japanese breeds like the Akita or Shiba Inu, nor to northern European breeds like the Spitz and Samoyed.  Mutton's DNA showed his lineage had diverged from all other known dog breeds at least four thousand years ago, so very likely he and the others of his breed had been brought over from Siberia by the ancestors of the Coast Salish many millennia ago.

"It’s nice to hear Western science say this is how long you’ve had a relationship with woolly dogs," said study co-author Michael Pavel, a knowledge keeper of the Skokomish Nation.  "Often we are the subjects of research, but in this case, we were able to weave our considerable knowledge together with a Western scientific perspective."

Which is a polite way of saying, "we freakin' told you so."  Non-Indigenous American and European anthropologists have a long and sorry history of paying little attention to the cultural memories of Indigenous people, of dismissing their oral history as little more than a curiosity.  Time after time there's been vindication of the accuracy of these histories -- a recent example we looked at here at Skeptophilia is the tale, also from coastal tribes of the Northwest, that there'd been a monstrous earthquake and tsunami one midwinter night around three hundred years ago, which turned out to be right on the money.

Maybe the anthropologists are finally starting to take the traditions of Indigenous people more seriously.  One can only hope.

The ultimate story, though, is a sad one.  Christian missionaries in the Western Hemisphere generally did their damndest to eradicate any traces of Native beliefs and practices, especially ones that were involved in prestige and authority.  In the Northwest, that included forbidding the keeping of woolly dogs and the weaving of their fur into ceremonial garments.  Ultimately, the entire breed went extinct, and other than some woven pieces that have survived, knowledge of the practice itself died as well other than a cultural memory that it had once been done.

The men and women who contributed to the article in Science, though, by and large put a happier spin on it.  "All we knew was that the dogs were all gone, and [we had] just that -- stories," said Sto:lo Grand Chief Steven Point.  "Nobody knew what happened.  The woolly dog became a casualty of colonialism.  But the woolly dog is part of who we are, and it feels like a link to our past is being filled in.  It’s a good news story."



  1. You should be honest and admit there is another really significant reason why modern science dismisses a great deal of local traditions and myths... The occasional bit of truth is hidden in an enormous morass of old superstitions, old wives tales, mythology and lore that is just not true. This applies to any culture... Western, eastern, traditional, or indigenous.

    Declaring "gotcha!" when some bit of that knowledge turns out to be true is disingenuous. Science exists for sorting out the truth from myth. This is a good case where western science worked to show a bit of culture to have a deep history, the discoveries of science are be celebrated and not abused.

    1. That's a point well taken, and I certainly wasn't trying to imply that all such beliefs are valid or reflect the truth. Merely that dismissing it all out of hand is hardly better than accepting it all -- especially as in this case (and the one about the earthquake), where there was no especially good reason NOT to believe there was some truth in it. Categorical thinking of any kind is thin ice, and -- as you point out -- hard evidence is always the touchstone.