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?