For thousands of years, the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest had what might have seemed a curious tradition to outsiders: They kept and periodically sheared fluffy white dogs, generating wool to weave into spiritually important blankets and ceremonial garments. The woolly dogs, which resembled current-day Samoyeds, were not pets. The Coast Salish people considered them to be close relatives, on par with humans, and believed they had wisdom to share. The keepers—mostly women—had a certain wealth and status. They gave the dogs a special diet that included salmon and other marine life, and they protected the animals from breeding with village dogs.
Yet, by the late 19th or early 20th century, the woolly dogs were extinct.
For more than a century, it has been accepted in non-Native circles that the Coast Salish gave up their beloved woolly dogs because of the ease of access to manufactured blankets, introduced by American and Canadian colonizers. But the fur of a particular woolly dog—which had been residing in the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History since before the Civil War—is now helping to tell a different, more accurate story.
The resulting paper, published in Science on December 14, 2023, was a collaboration between Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian researchers, along with members of Salish communities. By weaving together the Native nations’ ancestral and oral histories with advanced scientific methods—including genomic analysis—the authors were able to confirm that the woolly dog existed for at least 5,000 years. While animal remains from the distant past found in Salish territories were thought to have belonged to woolly dogs, the study is the first scientific evidence that the animals definitively existed in the region for millennia.
“We knew that,” says Michael Pavel, an elder from the Skokomish/Twana Coast Salish community in Washington State who contributed to the study. “We knew what we were feeding it, we knew how it was cared for, we knew that it was unique, and much of the scientific results attested to that.”
The study might never have happened without a dog named Mutton. During the Covid-19 pandemic, evolutionary molecular biologist Audrey Lin was scrolling through Twitter (now called X) and came across an article in Hakai magazine about the Salish and their traditional relationship with the woolly dog. She had a special interest in dog evolution but had never heard of the breed. She says she was enchanted by the description of Salish women paddling through coastal waters with their trusted and well-loved dogs in their canoes.
The article mentioned that the Smithsonian held perhaps the only known woolly dog pelt. It belonged to a dog named Mutton—named for his love of chasing sheep—and had been sent to the Institution in 1859 by his owner, an amateur ethnologist and naturalist named George Gibbs. Most likely, Gibbs—who studied Native cultures while he worked on the Northwest boundary survey—received Mutton as a gift.
Mutton’s pelt had been studied before, in the early 2000s, to help determine whether textiles held by various museums contained woolly dog fibers. Lin wanted to know more about the woolly dog lineage and decided to create a full genomic profile. “I was very surprised that there hadn’t been any published genetic work on Mutton,” she says. Specifically, she was hoping to see if he was a “pre-colonial dog,” one that had been present long before colonizers came to North America.
The woolly dog was no longer in existence as of the early 20th century, and Coast Salish weaving traditions almost died out as well. Outside of Native communities, the conventional explanation had long been that the Coast Salish themselves lost interest in breeding and shearing the dogs once cheaper fibers and blankets became available.
But the Coast Salish themselves passed down a different story: European missionaries and authorities set out to eradicate the woolly dog because it was associated with Native beliefs and cultural practices. Garments created from the woolly dog fibers, such as headbands, carrying straps, robes and other ceremonial regalia, were thought to have been imbued with spiritual properties.
“The woolly dog was gifted by the Creator to have wool fibers that would retain the energy of prayer,” Pavel says. A textile made from its fur was a prized gift. It “would be one of the most sought-after and highly respected items to receive in the ancestral days,” he says. But once the British came, he says, “the woolly dog, not unlike the Coast Salish people, was persecuted.” The dogs “were either assimilated or eradicated, not unlike the policies and procedures impacting the Indigenous people.”
The Science paper supports this explanation. As colonialism spread, many Coast Salish traditions—including strict reproductive isolation for the dogs—were eradicated, says Logan Kistler, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History who was part of the project. The researchers discovered that while Mutton had genes that tied him to pre-colonial times, he was only around 85 percent woolly dog. His genes suggested that he most likely had recent ancestors that were allowed to breed with European dogs.
In the paper, one elder, Rena Point Bolton, recalls that her great-grandmother was forced to give up her dogs. Her ancestors “were told they couldn’t do their cultural things,” by Indian agents and law enforcement, Bolton told the researchers. “The dogs were not allowed.”
The scientists performed a forensic reconstruction of Mutton, based on information from his pelt, and found that he was bigger than the skeletal remains of other dogs in the archaeological record that were thought to have been pure woolly dogs. “He was a little bit thick looking,” says Lin, noting that he stood 40 centimeters (15 inches) tall at the shoulder.
Although Mutton was not 100 percent woolly dog, he still had enough woolly dog DNA that Lin and her colleagues were able to gain more insight into why the dog’s fur provided rich material for weaving. They identified 28 genes that have links to hair growth and follicle regeneration. And they created a reference genome for the woolly dog that will help pinpoint whether other skeletal remains found in the Pacific Northwest belonged to woolly dogs, says Lin. Mutton’s genome also provides a valuable reference point for understanding the evolution and diversity of other dogs from the Pacific Northwest.
Mutton’s contributions to science and cultural understanding may grow in the coming years. Kistler says the pelt may make a visit back home to the West Coast in 2025 for a meeting of the Coast Salish. The Smithsonian is also collaborating with a filmmaker to create a documentary about woolly dogs and weaving.
The woolly dog “had a gift to offer humanity,” says Pavel—not just their wool, but what he calls their “teachings,” the wisdom they shared with humans. “They were loved, they were embraced and in return, they showed us unconditional love. They showed us loyalty and a zeal for life.”