Central Coast Salish share the same culture but speak four distinct languages of the Coast Salish language family known as Salishan. They historically occupied and continue to reside in contiguous territories in and adjacent to the Lower Fraser Valley, on southeast Vancouver Island and on intervening San Juan and Gulf Islands. Three of these groups are known by indigenous names: Halkomelem, the largest group, and Squamish share their names with their respective languages; Nooksack, now entirely in Washington state, is an anglicization of the name by which other Coast Salish groups knew them. The fourth group, living in both BC and Washington state, has no all-encompassing name for itself and is currently known as Straits Salish.

The Central Coast Salish area, with a mild and relatively dry climate, has rich and varied resources. Paramount were annual runs of salmon that ascended the Fraser and Squamish rivers from May through November. Members of all four groups fished the Fraser River, but most favourably situated were Halkomelem, who fished with dip nets and large trawl nets towed between canoes. Straits Salish perfected the reef net, a unique trap set between pairs of canoes at locations in the sea where Fraser-bound salmon were known to pass. Most salmon were caught in summer when surplus quantities could be dried on open-air racks. While equipment has changed, Central Coast Salish people continue to fish these areas.

Social System

Large shed-roofed houses were built in villages, from which trips were made to gather seasonal resources. Life centered around the household groups consisting of extended families with a core or lineage of people linked through male or female lines of descent. Marriage with blood kin was not permitted; thus spouses usually came from different villages and networks of kinship linked people throughout Central Coast Salish territory. Resource sites and ritual privileges were owned by lineages or kin groups, whose members worked co-operatively under the direction of esteemed leaders. There was a hierarchical class structure within the clans as well as slaves. Class position was imprecise, without ranked lineages or titled positions, but people strove to maintain class standing by hard work, selective marriages and proper behaviour.

Summer and autumn were times for potlatches, when people from neighbouring villages were invited to feast and recognize the hosts' social position. Today, people are still linked by a network of kin and many host potlatches as memorials for noted deceased family members.

Religious Activity

Religious activity focused on spiritual helpers who conferred personal powers for hunting, doctoring or other human endeavours. These individual powers were celebrated during winter in rituals referred to as spirit dances. Some spirit powers took the form of hereditary cleansing rituals, performed with masks, effigies or decorated rattles. The Indian Shaker Church (unrelated to the US-based Shakers religion) developed in the late 19th century and contains features of Christianity and traditional beliefs (see Aboriginal People: Religion). Many Central Coast Salish belong to Christian churches, particularly Catholic, Pentecostal, and other protestant denominations. Sculptural art found additional expression in tombs, house posts and implements (see Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art). Following a decline, participation in winter dancing has grown significantly since the 1970s.

The early maritime fur trade, concentrated on the outer coast, did not directly affect Central Coast Salish, whose territory was first explored by Spanish and British ships in the early 1790s. In 1827 the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Langley in the centre of Halkomelem territory. In the late 19th century, as settlers were attracted to south Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley, Central Coast Salish territory became the most heavily populated part of BC.


Despite great cultural changes, distinctive rituals and religious expressions survive, uniting the small, dispersed villages permitting the maintenance of a vigorous sense of Aboriginal identity. Following a dramatic population decline in the 19th century, the population has rebounded and there are more than 18 000 registered Central Coast Salish listed in 58 bands in BC, and over 9 500 members in six tribes in Washington state.

Contemporary Life

The Central Coast Salish in Canada have acted to protect their legal rights and title to their territory and its resources. Many bands have united into tribal councils to jointly seek legal and political remedies to their claims to share in the wealth of the natural resources, particularly the fisheries. The Tsawwassen and Hwlitsum Coast Salish First Nations are located in the lower mainland of BC, and the Gulf Islands. The Tsawwassen First Nation treaty with Canada took effect in 2009, giving Tsawwassen rights for self-governance within the Canadian constitution. The Canoe Pass Indian Band was established in 1996 to represent the Hwlitsum people and the society quickly changed its name to the Hwlitsum First Nation. The Hwlitsum First Nation is an unrecognized band; in 2000, the Hwlitsum applied to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to create a new band at the Hwlitsum summer village, and in 2008 the Hwlitsum entered into the BC Treaty process.

See also Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast and general articles under Aboriginal People.