American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Lillooet

"Lillooet," a name meaning "wild onion" or "end of the trail," was once applied only to the lower division of the tribe. The Lillooets exhibited marked characteristics of the Northwest Coast culture. Most lived traditionally and continue to live in southwest British Columbia, Canada. Lillooet is an Interior Salish language.

Indian groups of the Plateau, including Interior Salishan speakers, have been living in their historic regions for a long time, probably upward of 9,000 years.

Lillooets were organized into upper and lower divisions, with each division composed of named bands of one or more villages. In aboriginal times, each village represented a single clan with one hereditary chief. Other leaders included war chiefs, hunting chiefs, orators, and wealthy and generous men.

Adolescents prepared for adulthood by fasting and engaging in feats of physical endurance. They also sought guardian spirits through vision quests or dreams to give them luck and skills. Girls were isolated at the time of their first menstrual periods. Like coastal groups, the Lillooets observed a caste system and kept slaves. Potlatches commemorated special life cycle events, at which the host enhanced his prestige by giving away gifts. The dead were wrapped in woven grass or fur robes and placed in painted grave boxes or in bark- or mat-lined graves. Graves were often marked with mortuary poles carved with clan totems (spiritual and mythological associates).

Men built circular winter lodges of cedar bark and earth on a wood frame. Lodges were excavated to a depth of around six feet and ranged between twenty and thirty-five feet in diameter. The floor was covered with spruce boughs. The clan totem was carved on the center pole or on an outside pole (lower division). Larger log and plank dwellings housed between four and eight families. Oblong or conical mat-covered houses served as shelter in the summer.

Salmon and other fish were the food staples. Men hunted both large and small game, including bear, beaver, rabbit, raccoon, and mountain goat. Hunters rubbed themselves with twigs to disguise their human scent. Women gathered assorted roots and berries and dried the foods for storage.

Men were known for their skill at wood carving. Stone, often soapstone, was also carved for artistic purposes, most often in the shape of a seated person holding a bowl. Women decorated clothing with porcupine quillwork. They also made excellent coiled baskets decorated with geometric motifs and colorful dyes.

Early (ca. 1809) intercourse with non-Native traders was generally friendly, although some non-native diseases had struck the people even before the beginning of the actual contact period. The people were able to live in a relatively traditional way until they were devastated by smallpox epidemics accompanying the gold rushes of the midnineteenth century. To make matters worse, famine followed the disease epidemics, striking with particular severity in the mid-1860s. Survivors gradually resettled on reserves delineated by the government of British Columbia.

 

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