Cascadia and the Salish Sea

Cascadia and the Salish Sea: What? Where?

If you are traveling to Seattle from afar, the geographical names “Cascadia” and “Salish Sea” may seem alien to you. It’s likely you have never seen these names on a map, though in the case of the Salish Sea, you soon may. What’s going on?

Like most places on our planet, names get affixed to places when they are first “discovered” by whomever is creating a map for the first time. Take “America,” for an excellent and famous example. The name comes from an early mapmaker who never visited the western hemisphere and wasn’t really even sure it existed in the shape he conjured up. The “West Indies” also springs to mind as a name out of place.

The Salish Sea has become an official placename for the marine ecosystem comprising the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and other adjacent bodies of water.

Most of the names early European explorers applied to features and regions of the Northwest had native names that were unknown to or ignored by them. What we now know as Mt. Rainier was called Tahoma (or some variant of that pronunciation) by the natives—who of course were really not “Indians” at all but a diverse group of individual peoples whom anthropologists have called the Salish [SAY-lish] because they share a common language group and a common bioregion.

“Salish” may be an imprecise and disputed way of defining a group of native peoples, but at least it is a name that is native to many of them.

Beginning in 1988, noted marine biologist Bert Webber asserted that the waters comprising Puget Sound, which is in Washington State; Georgia Strait, which is in British Columbia, Canada; and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the two nations, are essentially one interconnected marine environment and as such should bear a common designation.  He proposed honoring the Coast Salish people, who have lived off the bounty of these waters for millennia, by naming this marine system the Salish Sea.

Remarkably quickly, this notion gained acceptance among government entities in both the U.S. and Canada responsible for establishing official geographical designations and by 2010, the name become official.

This doesn’t mean that the existing names of the straits, bays, and sounds are supplanted—Salish Sea simply overlays the existing names and defines them as parts of a larger body, much the same as the Mediterranean Sea comprises individual straits and gulfs.

More about the Salish Sea from Wikipedia.

Cascadia encompasses a bioregion extending from southern Alaska to Northern California.

Similarly, numerous interest groups have been promoting the notion of designating as Cascadia the bioregion that surrounds the Salish Sea and extends further north, east and south to include parts of Alaska, British Columbia, all of Washington, and most of Oregon. In some versions, Cascadia is considered to also include parts of northern California, Idaho, western Montana, and even a slice of the Yukon Territory.

Cascadia (or its parts) is unlikely ever to become a U.S. state or an independent nation, but many imagine it as a sort of Utopia (or Ecotopia). Cascadia has become a state of mind for many throughout the region—one that defines a bioregion the same way that Salish Sea defines a marine environment. Cascadia even has its own flag, and you will often see it flying from British Columbia south to Oregon.

As time passes, names that once seemed geographically appropriate begin to be disorienting if not anachronistic. Ohio was once considered “the West” and Illinois “the Northwest” and prominent universities in each (Case Western Reserve and Northwestern, respectively) are stuck with names out of place.

Calling the “upper left-hand corner” of the U.S. the “Northwest” is of course correct and now obvious. But “Cascadia” is more reflective of the actual geologic, geographic, and human cohesion of the bioregion. Just as “Salish Sea” is an

The Cascadia flag features the Douglas Fir on a background representing the blue skies, the white of snow-capped mountains, and the lush green of our forests.

overlaid name for component parts of an ecosystem with individual names, “Cascadia” overlays whatever specific geographical areas of the Northwest one wants to assert. It defines a bioregion and a state of mind that no other name quite captures.

More about Cascadia.

So to my mind, “Cascadia” and “Salish Sea” have a resonance and a sense of spirit and place that feel more authentic as descriptors of the environments we inhabit in the Puget Sound region.  Call these places what you will, they are unique and precious.