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An important tribe of Salishan linguistic stock, in southern British Columbia, formerly holding a mountainous territory of about one hundred miles in length from north to south, including the river and lake of the same name, with Bridge River, Anderson, and Seton Lakes, and a part of Harrison Lake and extending on the north-east to beyond Fraser River. They are now settled upon reservations within the same territory, attached to Williams Lake and Fraser River agencies. They have several bands grouped in two main divisions distinguished by slight dialectic differences, and commonly known respectively as Upper (Williams Lake agency) and Lower (Fraser River agency). Their principal settlements are Fountain and Bridge River, of the Upper band; and Pemberton, and Skookumchuck, of the Lower band. From a population of perhaps four thousand souls a century ago they are now reduced by disease and former dissipation after the advent of the whites to about 1230, the most notable destruction having been the result of a small-pox visitation which swept all the tribes of the Fraser River country in 1862.
Lillooet, meaning "wild onion", the name by which they are commonly known, is properly the name of one of their former settlements near Pemberton, and is also a special designation of the lower division. They have no name for themselves as a tribe, but are known as Stlatlimuq to the neighbouring Shuswap and Thompson Indians, whom they closely resemble. Although it is known that the Lillooet and adjacent tribes had obtained some knowledge of the Catholic religion as early at least as 1810 from the Canadian employees of the North-West Fur Company, the beginning of civilization and Christianity in the tribe properly dates from the advent of Father Modeste Demers , who came out from Quebec in 1837, in company wtth Father Norbert Blanchet, and after several years of work in the Columbia region, in 1842 ascended the Fraser River to Stuart Lake, preaching and baptizing among all the tribes on the way. In 1845 the Jesuit Father John Nobili went over nearly the same ground on his way to the more northern Déné tribes. In 1847 the first Oblate missionaries in the Columbia region arrived at Fort Wallawalla, Washington, and in 1861 Father Charles Grandidier of that order was preaching to the Lillooet. In the same year the Oblate mission of Saint Mary's was established on Fraser River, thirty-five miles above New Westminster, and became the centre of mission work for the whole lower Fraser country. In 1863 the industrial school was added. The entire tribe of the Lillooet is now officially reported as Catholic, with the exception of about twenty individuals attached to the Anglican form. Twelve villages have churches, while a number of children are being educated at St. Mary's mission, under charge of the Oblate Fathers and the Sisters of Saint Anne. For all that concerns the primitive condition of the Lillooet our best authority is Teit. In habit and ceremonial they closely resembled the cognate Okanagan, Shuswap, and Thompson Indians, and a description of the one will answer fairly well for the others. They lived by fishing, hunting, and the gathering of wild roots and berries. Salmon fishing was their most important industry, the fish being taken by spearing, by hook and line, by nets and by weirs, at favourite fishing stations, and dried in the sun or by smoking. Their ordinary hunting implement was a highly decorated flat bow, with sinew cord, and arrows tipped with stone, copper, bone, or beaver teeth. The principal game animals were the deer, caribou, bear, mountain goat, bighorn, and beaver, besides the porcupine for its quills. Traps, nooses, pitfalls, and deadfalls were used. Dogs were carefully trained for hunting, and were also a favourite food article. A great variety of roots was gathered, some of which were roasted in pits in the ground after the manner of camas. Berries, particularly service berries, were dried in large quantities, pressed into cakes, and used at home or traded to other tribes. Provisions were stored in cellars for winter supply or sale.
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The winter house was sometimes a double-lined mat lodge, but more usually a semi-subterranean round structure, from eighteen to fifty feet in diameter, of logs lined with bark and covered with earth. Entrance was by a ladder through a hole in the roof, the projecting ends of the ladder and of the house posts being carved and painted with figures of the clan totem, in the style of the totem poles of the coast tribes. The ordinary summer dwelling was a rectangular communal structure of log framework and cedar boards, with bark roof, from thirty-five to seventy-five feet in length, with fire-places ranged along the centre to accommodate from four to eight families. The bed platform was next the wall. The furnishing consisted chiefly of baskets, bags, and mats. They were expert basket weavers, and basket making is still a principal industry in the tribe. Large closely-woven baskets were used for holding water in which to boil food by means of heated stones. Mats, blankets, and bags were woven from rushes, bark fibre, twisted strips of skin, and various kinds of animal hair, including that of a special breed of long-haired white dog now extinct. Knives, hammers, scrapers, etc., were of stone; bowls and dishes of wood. They were skilled in the making and use of canoes, both bark and dug-out, together with snowshoes for winter travel. Skins were dressed soft, but seldom smoked. Fire was obtained by means of the fire drill. Houses and much of their portable handiwork were adorned with native paint.
The dress was of skins, or fabrics woven from wool or bark fibre, and included caps, head bands, robes, shirts, belts, sashes, aprons, G-strings, leggings, and moccasins, with ornamentation of fringes, beads, feathers, porcupine quills, dentalium and abalone shells. Nose and ear pendants were worn by both sexes. The hair was cut across the forehead, and either hung loose or was bunched on top and behind. Young women braided their hair, and that of slaves was close cropped. The face was painted with symbolic designs and tattooing was common with both sexes. Head flattening was not practised, and was held in contempt. Of weapons, besides the bow they had stone knives, stone-bladed spears, and various kinds of clubs. Protective body armour of thin boards, rods, or heavy elk skin was used, but shields were unknown. Scalping or beheading was uncommon. Many villages and communal houses were in-closed by elaborate stockades. Captives were usually enslaved and sometimes sold to other tribes. They had many games, including dice, target games, throwing at hoops, wrestling, horse racing and the nearly universal Indian ball game. Some of these games had song accompaniment.
They had the clan system, but without marriage restriction or fixed rule of descent, the clan being frequently identical with the village community. There were hereditary village chiefs, each assisted by a council, but no tribal head chief. Most of the property of a deceased owner went to his widow and children, instead of being destroyed, as in some other tribes. There was a great number of dances and other ceremonials, including mask dances and the great gift distribution known as Potlatch among the tribes of the North-West coast. Children and young men at certain times were subjected to a whipping ordeal to test their fortitude. Menstrual women were rigorously secluded as in other tribes, and pregnancy, birth, and puberty were attended by elaborate rites and precautions. The puberty ritual for the young woman was especially severe, involving seclusion, fasting, prayer, and special training for a period of two years, during which time she was allowed to go out only at night, wandering through the forest masked and shaking a rattle, and sitting alone in the puberty lodge through the day, for the first month squatting in a hole with only her head above the surface. The puberty ordeal for the young man continued for as long a period, while for shaman candidates the tests and training extended over several years. Young men also fasted and prayed in solitary places to obtain visions of their guardian spirits. Marriage was preceded and accompanied by considerable ceremonial, including processions and giving of presents. Compulsion was not usual, but the girl was free to accept the suitor or not as she chose, and in some cases was herself the suitor or proposer. Polygamy was common. Widows and widowers were subjected to a long period of seclusion and purification. As in other tribes, twins were dreaded as uncanny, being believed to be the offspring, not of the husband, but of a grizzly bear and partaking of the bear nature. They were never buried in the ordinary way, but in death were laid away in tree tops in the remote forest.
The dead were usually buried in a sitting posture with best dress, weapons, and smaller personal belongings, in graves lined with grass and marked by circles of stones. In some cases a canoe was inverted over the grave. Among the Lower Lillooet the body was sometimes placed sitting upon the ground covered with a heap of stones, or deposited in a grave box, in front of which were set up wooden figures representing the deceased, and dressed in his clothes. Funeral songs were sung about the grave. His head pillow, together with some food, were burned near by. His dogs were killed and their bodies hung near the grave. If he owned slaves, one or more were buried with him, being either killed at the grave or buried alive. Children were made to jump four times over the corpse of the dead parent, in order that they might the sooner forget their loss. In Lillooet cosmogony the East was associated with light and life, the West with darkness and death. In the beginning the world was peopled with beings near akin to animals, many of whom were cannibals and evil magicians. These were changed to animals, birds, and fishes by supernatural beings, who became the gods of the tribe, chief among whom was Old Man, with his messenger Coyote, and his subordinate helpers, Sun, Moon, and others. The Raven brought death, daylight, and fire. The warm "Chinook wind" was the result of the marriage of Beaver and Glacier. Each clan had its own tradition of origin and there is a story of a whole tribe transformed into deer. The stars also were transformed beings, and thunder as usual was a bird. There were giants, but apparently no dwarfs, in their supernatural world. Sacred places were numerous, and sacrifice and propitiation ceremonies frequent, including a special rite by which the hunter asked pardon of the bear which he had killed. They had the same ceremonial feast at the beginning of the salmon fishing season which Father De Smet described as he had seen it among the Kutenai in 1845, as also a solemn consecration of the first, wild berries.
The spirit world was far in the West, over a weary and dusty trail by which the soul travelled until it crossed a log over a stream and reached the boundary of the Land of the Dead, standing up like a wall of rock, where, after passing the challenge of the sentinels, it entered, to find a pleasant land and a welcome from former friends, who spent their time dancing, gaming, and making clothes for the dead yet to follow. Children did not go to the spirit world, but were reborn on earth in the same family group and sometimes to the same mother. As usual the shaman was at once doctor, prophet, and master of rites. There seem to have been no secret societies. Colours had symbolic meaning, and four was a sacred number. Personal names were significant, and of four classes: hereditary family names, names derived from guardian spirits, dream names, and common nicknames.
The official report of the condition of the Lower bands in 1908 is repeated almost in the same terms for the Upper: "Their health has been fairly good through out the year. The sanitary condition of their villages is good, and many of them have been vaccinated from time to time. Their chief pursuits are hunting, fishing, packing, and farming. They also act as guides for mining and timber prospectors, and the women earn considerable money at basket making. Their dwellings are mostly all frame structures, and they have good barns and outbuildings. They have a considerable number of horses and cattle, which are well cared for during winter. They are fairly well supplied with farm implements, most of them owning what they have. They are industrious amid law abiding and are making some progress. They are temperate and moral."