The rich Wintun mythology included recognition of a supreme being as well as numerous spirits. Wintuns prayed to the sun before washing in the morning, smoking, and eating. Spirits, present in all things, could be acquired by dreaming and going to a sacred place and engaging in ritual behavior. Among the Nomlakis, they could also be influenced by prayer, charms, magic, and ritual. Shamans provided overall religious leadership. Bear shamans could destroy enemies. They received their powers during an annual five-day initiation period of fasting, dancing, and instruction from other shamans. Their curing methods included massage, soul capture, and sucking out a disease-causing object. Some Wintuns practiced the Kuksu cult, in which one or more secret societies, open by initiation to men and some high-status women, performed their own dances and rituals to restore the people to a perfect aboriginal state.
Wintuns did not adopt the 1870 Ghost Dance but rather the 1871 Earth Lodge cult, which preached the return of the dead, the end of the world, and the protection of the faithful. The BoleMaru Religion came in 1872, and dream dancing was popular toward the end of the century. Among the Nomlakis, virtually every activity and life cycle phase carried with it ritual restrictions and ceremonies. Like many California peoples, Wintuns were organized into small tribes. The village was the main social, economic, and political unit. Villages were autonomous and had clearly defined territory. Each village was led by a chief, whose office was often hereditary, who arbitrated disputes, hosted ceremonies and gatherings, and engaged in diplomatic relations with the chiefs of other villages. The chief, who was materially supported by his followers, had to be a good singer and dancer and generally well liked. The Nomlakis recognized a secret society of higher-status men, who had a higher degree of authority in public matters and who controlled most of the skilled crafts and professions.
Murder, rape, or some other sexual transgression was generally capital crimes. Most intentional crimes could be atoned for by compensating the injured party. Dances were more often social than religious and were often given when food was plentiful. Gambling was also a part of social dances; activities included the grass game (for men), hand games, shinny (for women, a variation of hockey), football, hoop-and-pole (in which an arrow was shot through a rolling hoop), ring and pin, and other contests of skill. Songs could also be social or religious.
Four to seven pole-framed, bark-covered conical houses made up a village. Among the Patwins, dwellings as well as the ceremonial and domed menstrual huts were semisubterranean and earth covered. The men's clubhouse and sweat lodge was semisubterranean and circular, fifteen to twenty feet in diameter, with one center pole. In cold weather single men also slept there.
Men hunted deer and rabbits, both communally in drives and individually. They also smoked bear (except grizzly) out of their dens and captured fowl, birds, and rodents. Communal drives were held to catch salmon and trout. Women gathered grubs, grasshoppers, acorns, greens, and seeds. Men and women cooperated in gathering acorns, with men shaking acorns out of trees for women to gather. The acorns were then dried and pounded into meal, after leaching them to remove their bitter taste.
In addition to fighting neighboring villages, Wintun enemies generally included the Shastas, Klamaths, Modocs, and Yanas. The Nomlakis' main enemy was the Yuki. Wintus took no prisoners. Typical provocations for feuds or war included murder, theft of women, poaching, and trespass. Among the Nomlaki not all men fought; those who did underwent special practical and magical training. Seers determined the proper course of action, and poisoners used magic as a weapon. Wars were usually limited, and casualties were minimal. Weapons included the bow and arrow, clubs, spears, daggers, slings, and wooden rod armor. Hand-to-hand fighting was avoided if possible. When the fighting stopped, an assembly of important men decided on just compensation.
In aboriginal times, the Wintuns consisted of nine major groups within the three main subgroups. Some Nomlakis encountered the Spanish as early as 1808, although in general the Nomlakis were outside the sphere of Spanish influence.
By 1800, the Patwins were being taken by force to the missions. Wintus first met non-Natives in 1826, when the Jedediah Smith and Peter Ogden expeditions entered the region. Malaria epidemics killed roughly 75 percent of Wintuns in the early 1830s. Severe smallpox epidemics followed in 1837. By the midnineteenth century, most of their land had been stolen. Ranchers' cattle and sheep destroyed their main food sources. Miners polluted the fresh water. Then came the massacres. Captain John C. Frémont killed 175 Wintu and Yana in 1846; in 1850, whites gave a "friendship" feast with poisoned food, killing 100 Wintus. In 1851, 300 Indians died when miners burned the Wintu council house.
The so-called Cottonwood Treaty, ratified in 1852, acknowledged thirty-five square miles of Wintu land, but from 1858 to 1859, California regular and irregular troops killed at least 100 Wintus and displaced hundreds of others. Throughout the 1860s, Wintuns were hunted down and either killed or used as laborers. The 25,000-acre Nome Lackee Reservation was established in 1854 in the foothills of western Tehama County. Indians created a stable existence there based on farming, but by 1863 the reservation had been taken over by whites, and its residents were sent to Round Valley.
Many surviving Nomlakis eventually returned to their old territory, working as farm hands and establishing a number of settlements, or rancherias. Most Patwins who survived the missions, military forays, raids, epidemics, and massacres either became assimilated into white society or were forced onto small reservations during the 1850s and 1860s, most of which have since been terminated.
A period of religious revival occurred in the 1870s, during which much traditional practice was replaced with Ghost Dance and later Big Head ceremonies. Wintus gathered en masse for the last time at the end of the nineteenth century. Copper-processing plants around the turn of the century poisoned what decent land and water remained in the region. Cortina, Colusa, Paskenta, and Grindstone Rancherias were created between 1906 and 1909.
Wintun children were formally excluded from local schools until 1928. Termination and allotment policies during 1952 and 1953 further broke up Wintun culture; only three rancherias survived this period. In the 1930s and again in the 1970s, dam construction flooded much of their remaining land. Despite an agreement with the Wintun people, the U.S. government removed people from and destroyed their homeland, the Toyon-Wintun site, in 1984.