Why We Should Stop Calling it the Salish Sea


Image: Wikimedia, via Wikimedia)

The Salish Sea is a misnomer.  The geographic term was put forward in 1988 by Bellingham marine biologist Ben Webber who, to focus popular attention on environmental issues confronting the region, believed that a single name would be more effective than having to separately identify the Georgia Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound (which extends southward from Port Townsend).  The idea is sound; the use of the term is not.  

Webber misappropriates a linguistic term to identify his sea.  Many native groups on its putative shore developed spectacular cultures over thousands of years, but not one ever identified themselves as Salish.  It is a white term.  It appeared in the 1840s when the Jesuit philologist, Gregorio Mengarini (1811-1886), was inspired to leave Italy and work as a missionary among the Flathead People in the American West.  Here we encounter our first difficulty dealing with foreign terms intended to identify a native people.  Bear with me.

The term Flathead was coined to identify a people that did not flatten their heads.  They lived around Flathead Lake and along the Flathead River in what is now northwestern Montana.  These bodies of water are in the Columbia River basin, and the people who lived where the Columbia River enters the Pacific employed a custom in which noble families bound their infants’ heads so that as the skull grew, the forehead was compressed and nose and crown followed a straight line.  The practice apparently had no deleterious effects on later development and was regarded as a mark of good breeding.  

The practice was carried out further up the river and coast, even on Puget Sound, but not east of the Cascade Mountains.  The people  around Flathead Lake did not bind foreheads.  When native people came to Fort Astoria, later Fort George and Fort Vancouver, to trade, peak-skulled nobility could look at normal-headed visitors and cluck censoriously.  Western travelers described this custom in their literature, and it became known throughout the U. S. and Canada.

The Montana Flatheads called themselves Say LEESH, and to further the Jesuit’s missionary work, Mengarini immersed himself in their language, even joining months-long buffalo hunting parties.  He became so proficient that native speakers said if you heard conversation in a group he was in but you could not see, you could not tell who the non-native speaker was.  He wrote a grammar and dictionary still used today in native language studies.

As philologists and naturalists moved further west, they noted that many languages they heard were similar to that spoken by the Say LEESH.  Linguists continued the work, and the term (rendered now as Salish or Salishan) identifies 23 separate languages grouped into three families:  Interior Salish, spoken in British Columbia, and much of the Pacific Northwest; Bella Coola Salish, spoken on Bella Coola Inlet in British Columbia, and Coast Salish.

 Today, many of these groups do not use the white term Salish to identify what they speak but use their own terms.  In the Puget Sound region native people speak Twana, Lushootseed, Txwlshootseed and Whuljootseed.  On Juan de Fuca Strait, the S’klallam spoke Nu sklallam.  In the Georgia Strait, the Saanich People speak Sencoten.

It has been convenient regionally to identify all these languages as Salish or Coast Salish but the old practice does not reflect the renewal of identity that native groups have labored for over a century to achieve. That goal is to be called by their own names and not some bastardized white term.  

English is a Germanic language, yet we do not call English, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Germans “Germanics.”  Germans aren’t even Germans but Deutsch! Why then, other than for blinkered convenience, sheer laziness or indifference and racism, do we still refer to the Nisqually, Duwamish, Skagit, and Lummi and so many others as Salish people?  And why add to colonialist baggage by concocting a Salish Sea?

Another problem with the term is the word sea.  There are oceans and there are seas: think of Caribbean, Mediterranean, North, Irish, Red and South China. The difference has to do with size, but seas are quite a deal larger than our greater Puget Sound.  There are also bights, bays, channels, passages, sounds, lakes, and gulfs, all smaller categories.  Some are landlocked like the Caspian, Aral and Gallilee, but standard seas are all interconnected.

The Salish Sea covers an area of 6,950 square miles.  The Caribbean, over 1 million; the Mediterranean, almost 1 million; the North Sea, 220,009, and so on.  Even the little Irish Sea covers 17,763 square miles.  The landlocked Caspian Sea covers almost 150,000 square miles. 

W. H. Auden provides a more sensible definition in his poem “Lakes”:

A lake allows an average father, walking slowly,

To circumvent in an afternoon,

And any healthy mother to halloo the children

Back to her bedtime from their games across:

(Anything bigger than that, like Michigan or Baikal,

Though potable, is an estranging sea).

You can hear gunfire across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and truck engines across Georgia Strait.  There are parts of Puget Sound where a mother can easily halloo her children across — my mother, anyway.

I think the appellation of sea in the case of the Salish Sea is an example of sea envy.  Another desperate effort to prove oneself world class.  Originally, the two straits and Puget Sound were known as the Gulf of Georgia, a name given by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 to honor his sovereign and patron, George III.  It was a patronizing term then, much as the Salish Sea is now. 

Is there another general term that would suffice?  Yes, Whulj, meaning “saltwater,” a generic native term for ocean, sea, sound, strait, etc., used by native speakers on Puget Sound.  On the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the S’klallam use Tlahlch, and the Chemainus First Nation on Georgia Strait use Kwailkw, all variations of a single morpheme.  Ironically, it was the Chemainus First Nation that, in March 2008, was the first native group to get on the bandwagon and propose renaming Georgia Strait the Salish Sea.

The federal governments of Canada and the United States have signed off on the use of Salish Sea, but it still rankles as a case of invidious tinkering, like the marketing of Alaskan Copper River Salmon by restaurateurs.  Many Copper River salmon are chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), a.k.a. Dog Salmon, so named because native people in the Gulf of Alaska found them distasteful and fed them to their dogs.  Leave it to marketers to brand dog food so that we shulbs will eat it.  But must we gag on the Salish Sea, too?


  1. I agree. But don’t worry: very few except headline writers and tree-huggers bother to use use the term. It will likely disappear over time, in the manner of whippersnapper, doozie, and pusselque.

  2. To correct an error in the article, the term Salish Sea was coined by (now retired) WWU Huxley College of the Environment Professor Burt Webber. The name “Salish Sea” has been adopted widely by many of the regions tribes. Note the Lummi Nation statement at the attached link. I would defer to the Washington Tribes and B.C. First Nations for a name that encompasses the transboundary inland waters of Washington and B.C.

  3. Great piece, David. However, I have to speak up in defense of Copper River Salmon, despite the dismissive judgment of the indigenous people. The species was marketed as something special by the late Jon Rowley, a culinary evangelist who also gave us a reverence for Walla Walla Onions, Shuksan strawberries, matsutake mushrooms and more. Jon knew how to make us appreciate and pay a premium price for previously unheralded food stocks.

  4. I accept that many tribes have adopted the term Salish Sea. Many tribes also work against the Duwamish, the first signatory of the Treaty of Point Elliott, in their 160-year effort to gain federal recognition. There are words and there are deeds.

    I always defer to Jean Godden, but I recall that Ray’s Boathouse was one of the first restaurants to market Jon Rowley’s wel-advertised Copper River salmon. Ray’s also marketed deconstructed clam chowder. You received a squat cylinder of clam sludge in the bottom of a bowl, looking like it had just been dropped rom a cat food tin. Then, from on high, the waiter ceremoniously poured a silver boat of clam nectar onto its surface, and VOILA, you had a bowl of lukewarm clam sludge crowned by a froth of gray bubbles.. As I say, there are words and there are deeds.

  5. Thank you, Interesting contribution. Falls short on suggesting well-thought-out replacements. Consider the name Turtle Island. “Island” is wrong in terms of scale, so blatantly wrong that it is right, since it can only be taken as a metaphor. “Turtle” honors (in English) a myth common to some Indigenous groups, but of course not all of them. I doubt there would be any name common to all Indigenous groups of the waters in question. Further, Turtle Island honors the principle that fauna took up a far greater role in the mythology and geography of Indigenous cultures than in Euro culture. Turning back to the Gulf of Georgia, you did not raise any objection to “Gulf.” So I’ll throw two out there for discussion: Gulf of Orcas. Orca Sound.

  6. Interesting article. I have to take some exception with the characterization of Copper River salmon. The Copper River is home to a number of salmon species, including King, Sockeye, and Coho, as well as Chum. The most abundant in the markets is Sockeye. When you are paying a premium price for Copper River salmon, you are not getting Chum unless you are being cheated (and cannot tell the difference between different salmon species). I’ll agree that Chum is in 4th place for those afore-mentioned species, when it comes to table appeal, but I know others who disagree with me, especially if the fish is smoked. Last, there is some argument about how the Chum became known as “dog salmon”; while it is true that many Alaskans do use Chum for that purpose, others will tell you that the term comes from the fact that the males develop very pronounced “canines” during spawning season.

  7. Appreciate the anthropology but remain unconvinced by your thesis. The term is ecologically integrative because it transcends boundaries and forms a coherent whole. Regardless of what term one uses, the coast Salish dialect, as I understand it, was also a common language shared among coastal native people. That also underscores the integrative nature of the term. Then there’s the simple aliterative flourish, which sounds pleasing at least to my ears. Now more than ever we need to look beyond state and national boundaries and work together to resolve environmental problems. Terms like “Salish Sea” help to do this by embracing geography over arbitrary political boundaries. Finally, just as an “ecosystem” can be as small as a single cell or as large as the biosphere, a “sea” can also range widely in scale. So what if it lies at the small end of the spectrum? Here’s to the Salish Sea. It sounds waaaaay better than Puget Sound and all the other terms derived from Euro-American settlement.

  8. there’s a wonderful article written by Burt Webber about how he came to name the Salish Sea. It’s well worth reading


    since it counters David’s well researched article, by pointing out that many of the tribes themselves identify as coast Salish peoples. The branding of this new inland sea, was well established by both natives and non-natives alike for the specific Purpose of trying to save it from further destruction. I think it’s done it’s job fine. No need to change it. You can obviously call each individual part of it whatever you want. Or not use the name at all. but it is an official designation.

    By the way, Forest, many dictionary’s online including Merriam-Webster do say that SCHULB is in a proper way to spell that Yiddish word. Sort of like the difference between writing Brazil or Brasil.

  9. Before anyone gets too worked up about ‘gagging’ on the term ‘Salish Sea’, would it not be appropriate to first find out what the ‘Salish people’ – those who welcomed that new description some ten years ago – have to say about it?

    There is, of course, nothing wrong with an academic discussion on the merits or demerits of a relatively recent new geographical description, but one would not expect it to be based on fallacious reasoning. The author attempts to connect ‘Germanic’ to ‘Salish’ in the sense that Norwegians, English, Danes and Germans are not being spoken of as ‘Germanic’, but by their national identities, ergo the same should apply here. I will not even go further into ‘German’ vs. ‘Deutsch’, as this would only serve to highlight what the other nationalities are called in their respective modern languages.

    The fallacy in citing these national entities, is that they themselves are latter day amalgamations and constructs, and have very little to do with ‘nations’ as the are understood in terms of ‘First Nations’ in Canada or ‘Native Nations’ in the United States, that is as tribal societies. There are also the questions arising from broader designations such as ‘British’ or ‘Scandinavian’. The latter includes through the Saami people different language groups altogether than just those of ‘Germanic’ origin and even more so if we also include Finland, often considered part of Scandinavia by being one of the ‘Nordic countries’.

    That brings me to the sea, in this case the ‘Baltic Sea’. All of the Nordic countries plus Germany know it in their languages as the ‘Eastern Sea’, for others along its shore it is associated with ‘Baltic’, for one it is even the ‘Western Sea’. Whether ‘Baltic’ or ‘Eastern’, it is a broad description of a geographic entity, a body of water, just like the ‘Salish Sea’ and therewith serves its purpose.

    Is there really a demonstrated utility, let alone an appetite, for a departure from calling the body of water between Vancouver Island and the Mainland the ‘Salish Sea’?

  10. JHC, will it ever end??
    We are tying ourselves into pretzels with this faux “outrage” and demand that every possible sensitivity is mitigated. If the tribes aren’t offended, then neither should this white man be. I’ll bet he uses LatinX too.

    Parents, don’t let your babies grow up to be Humanities students at the UW. There is a mind virus running rampant there. I think Mr. Buerge is infected.

  11. Coast Salish native here. We love the new name and want white men to shut up about something that they do not understand or live daily. This entire article is a joke.


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