Salish Sea: A Tale of Two Words

A tale of two words blog image

The words “Salish” and “Sea”, used together, identify a very unique geographical feature. With this article, in order to further define the naming of the Salish Sea, I will consider the individual meaning of these two words.


Part one: SALISH


The 60+ sovereign Tribes and First Nations who’s ancestral home lies on the shores of the Salish Sea are Coast Salish and Salish. The term “Salish” refers to a language family comprised of two-dozen distinct languages and many dialects and is used to indicate the cultural group of Indigenous Peoples who speak or spoke these languages.

Salish is not actually a word that exists in the languages of the Indigenous Peoples that have traditional territories on the shores of the Salish Sea. Salish, or “Salishan”, is in fact the invention of European linguists who, having ‘expertise in languages’, catalogued the languages of Indigenous Tribes in the Pacific Northwest, sometime around 1850.

The Salishan are a group of languages of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) in North America, including the Canadian province of British Columbia and the American states of WashingtonOregonIdaho and Montana. The Salishan languages are a geographically continuous block—with the exception of the Nuxalk (Bella Coola), on the central coast of British Columbia, and the extinct Tillamook language, to the south, on the central coast of Oregon.

Around 1850, the earliest studies of Indigenous languages were conducted in the PNW. At that time, not much was known about the Indigenous Peoples and the US turned to linguists to provide a measure of the number and diversity of the native settlements along that part of the border. It is assumed that the linguists, from Washington DC, began their studies in Western Montana in the region of Flathead Lake. They named the language spoken by the people of that area “Salish”. As they worked westward, they noted linguistic similarities that formed a coherent language ‘family’ of tribes from Montana to the west: the Salish family of languages.

These studies, and those following, established that the Salish languages form one of the great language families known to the world. The groups that spoke the Salish languages, although mostly found on the shores of the Salish Sea, also occurred in other areas. The map below, shared from Paul Kroeber’s The Salish Language Family, shows that Salish speaking people were not always geographically connected. A group can be found in Bella Coola, BC and another near Tillamook in Oregon. Salish speaking groups were also discovered in northeast Washington State and reached eastward through Idaho to Montana.

Salish languages were also spoken in the south central part of BC (Okanagan, Thompson River, Lillooet, and Fraser River).  Although the majority of groups around the Salish Sea do not extend to the Pacific Ocean, two do: the Quinault and lower Chehalis.


Salish speaking peoples map


The family of Salish languages has at least 23 groupings of languages and many dialects. The Coast Salish (those on the shores of the Salish Sea) speak at least 13 different languages.

Salish languages make up the largest single-language family in the Pacific Northwest and are a reflection of the large numbers originally found in these Indigenous populations. Sadly, all Salishan languages are now considered critically endangered, some extremely so, with only three or four speakers left. Nowadays, few Salish languages have more than 2,000 speakers. Fluent, daily speakers of almost all Salishan languages are generally over sixty years of age with many languages have only speakers over eighty. 

Some researchers believe that the centre of the Salishan language development was in the flathead area of Montana, but there is a strong argument that the Salish Sea was the origin of Salish languages: estimated to be between three and six thousand years old. Interestingly, the majority of Tribes and First Nations located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean are not Salish language speakers. Those near Neah Bay, on the west coast of Vancouver Island do not speak Salish languages, nor, generally, do the First Nations and Tribes to the north of Vancouver Island.

The Salish Sea name has been widely accepted by the Tribes and First Nations that live on or near the shores of the Salish Sea. The Coast Salish Gathering, an organization representing all of the Salish Sea First Nations and Tribes, was first to use the word Salish to name something other than the languages and, in 2007, proclaimed the inland waters on which they live to be sacred and henceforth to be called the Salish Sea. First Nations and Tribes are particularly committed stewards of the Salish Sea’s rich and complex ecology.

However, not all Tribal and First Nations members support the name “Salish Sea”. Some point out that it is not a word that came from their culture but was made up by European linguists. Discussions about a culturally more appropriate name are ongoing. In linguistic terms, the word Salish is an eponym, which essentially means a name that a person gives to another person or place. Many of the Salish Indigenous Peoples do not have self-designations (autonyms) in their languages, but they frequently have specific names for local dialects, as the local group was more important culturally than larger tribal relations.

Although the name Salish Sea has only been used for the last 10 years, it is more and more often heard.  The name is useful and is of particular interest to those of all cultures who are striving to be more effective stewards of the Salish Sea’s natural resources.


Part two: SEA


Have you ever considered how the combined Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca qualify as a “sea”? Stefan Freelan, artist and cartographer of the Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin has heard some say that the Salish Sea is too small to call it a sea. The word “sea”, however, has a number of meanings and can be used in many contexts that continue to change over time.

The “Seven Seas” referred to in biblical times were the Mediterranean, Black, Aegean, Red, Caspian, Adriatic and Arabian seas. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the seven seas were what we now call the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Modern geography no longer calls them the seven seas, although the reference continues to be used in an informal way to refer to the world’s oceans. And, as there is no land boundary dividing our present-day five oceans, some simply call the entire body of salt water on the planet the “sea”.

Is there any single definition of the word sea? Not really. "Coastal seas", for example, are the areas where land and ocean meet, or where the ocean is partially protected by land, and are called such to acknowledge the rich ecological systems found at this interface. This is the most common category of the word "sea", and the most famous of these is probably the Mediterranean, which has a single, relatively narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean: the Strait of Gibraltar.  The Salish Sea fits this definition as it too has a relatively narrow opening to the Pacific Ocean: the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Not all seas have an interface of water with land. One of largest seas in the Atlantic Ocean is the Sargasso Sea. About 1,000 miles wide and 3,000 miles long, it’s name refers to the presence of Sargassum algae that floats on the surface and attracts many species of marine animals.

Smaller seas can be nested inside a larger one. One of the major seas of the world is the Mediterranean. Within it, lies the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey, and within the Aegean Sea there are at least four smaller seas—the Thoracion, Icarian, Myrtoan and Crete.

It is accurate to say that the Salish Sea is comparatively smaller than most, but it is not the smallest. That recognition goes to the Sea of Marmara, between the Black Sea and The Aegean Sea. The Sea of Marmara is less than one square kilometer  (0.38 square miles). Another small sea is the Sea of Galilee that is 165 km2. The Salish Sea, in comparison, is 8,000 km2 (3,088 square miles).  The Sea of Galilee is in fact a fresh water lake which has led some to challenge its status as a sea, however, the name has important traditional meaning and thus persists.

There is one additional sea that dos not have any connection to the ocean. The Dead Sea, for example, has no outlet and its famously high level of salinity continues to increase as much of the fresh water source (the Jordan River) is diverted for human use.

The word sea is more than simply a name for a geographical feature. Consider the phrases: “go to sea”, “travel on the high seas”, or “the deep blue sea”. It is also used to confer information about the state of the surface of the water as in “the storm has created rough seas”.

As is the case with all names of geographical features, the name will only persist if it is useful. In this context, the name of the Salish Sea, though newly adopted, by all measures has proven to be useful and is here to stay.


coast salish art map - blog image


Coast Salish Art Map, courtesy of Burke Museum, University of Washington