As a student of Erna Gunther at the University of Washington, Suttles in 1951, was the first to be awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology at that institution. He did ethnographic work with Northwest Coast people, especially the Coast Salish, beginning in the mid-1940s and linguistic work beginning in the mid-1950s. His publications on the Coast Salish, including his interpretation of the relationship between culture and environment and the nature of the social network, have had a significant influence on both ethnographic and archaeological work in the region. As editor of Vol. 7, Northwest Coast, of the Handbook of North American Indians, Suttles was instrumental in making scholars active in different kinds of research aware of each other's work. He also testified as an expert witness in several legal cases relating to Native rights in both Washington State and British Columbia, the most important of which was R. v. Sparrow, which established Native fishing rights across Canada. His 2004 grammar of the Musqueam language was a milestone in Salish studies.