Autonomous villages were each led by a chief and a subchief; these lifetime offices were hereditary in theory but who were generally filled by people possessing the qualities of honesty, integrity, and diplomacy. Unlike some other Plateau groups, only men could be chiefs. The authority of Sanpoil chiefs to serve as adviser, judge, and general leader was granted mainly through consensus. As judge, the chief had authority over crimes of nonconformity such as witchcraft, sorcery, and assault. His penalty usually consisted of a fine and/or lashes on the back.
An informal assembly of all married adults confirmed a new chief and oversaw other aspects of village life. All residents of the village were considered citizens. Village size averaged about thirty to forty people, or roughly three to five extended families, although some villages had as many as 100 people. Other village leaders included a messenger, a speaker, and a salmon chief (often a shaman, with the salmon as a guardian spirit, who supervised salmon-related activities). By virtue of their ability to help or hurt people, shamans also acquired relative wealth and power from their close association with chiefs, who liked to keep them allied.
Local villages had associated, nonexclusive territories or subsistence areas. Any person was free to live anywhere she or he wanted; that is, family members could associate themselves with relatives of their settlement, relatives of a different settlement, or a settlement where they had no relatives. The winter was a time for visits and ceremonies. During that season, women also made mats and baskets, made or repaired clothing, and prepared meals while men occasionally hunted or just slept, gambled, and socialized.
People rose at dawn, in the winter and summer, and began the day by bathing in the river. In spring, groups of four or five families left the village for root-digging areas; those who had spent the winter away from the main village returned. The old and the ill generally remained in camp.
Pacifism, generosity, and interpersonal equality and autonomy were highly valued. Girls fasted and were secluded for ten days at the onset of puberty, except for a nighttime running regime. The exchange of gifts between families constituted a marriage, a relationship that was generally stable and permanent. Corpses were wrapped in tule mats or deerskin and buried with their possessions. The family burned the deceased's house and then observed various taboos and purification rites. The land of the dead was envisioned as being located at the end of the Milky Way.
Sanpoil Indians used the typical Plateau-style winter houses. One was a single-family structure, circular and semisubterranean, about ten to sixteen feet in diameter, with a flat or conical roof. People covered a wood frame with planks or mats and then a layer of grass, brush, and earth. Entry was gained through the smoke hole, which could be covered by a tule mat. The interior was also covered with a layer of grass.
They also built communal houses consisting of a pole framework covered by grass, earth, and tule mats. These houses were about sixteen feet wide, between twenty-four and sixty feet long, and about fourteen feet high, with gabled roofs. Entry was through matted double doors. Each family had an individual tule-covered section, but they shared a number of fireplaces in the central passage.
Summer houses were similar in construction, but they were smaller, single-family structures. Some more closely resembled a mere windbreak. Some groups built adjoining rectangular, flat-roofed summer mat houses/windbreaks. Mat houses were always taken down after the season. Men also built sweat lodges of grass and earth over a willow frame.
Food was much more often acquired by the family than by the village. Fish was a staple. Men caught four varieties of salmon as well as trout, sturgeon, and other fish. They fished from May through October. Although women could not approach the actual fishing areas, they cleaned and dried the fish. Dried fish and sometimes other foods made up much of the winter diet. People generally ate two meals a day in summer and one in winter.
Women gathered shellfish, salmon eggs, bulbs, roots, nuts, seeds, berries, and prickly pear. Camas was eaten raw, roasted, boiled, and made into cakes. A short ceremony was performed over the first gathered crop of the season. Men hunted most large and small game in the fall. They prepared for the hunt by sweating and singing. Women came along to help dress and carry the game. Men also hunted birds and gathered mollusks. Venison and berries were pounded with fat to make pemmican.
Fish were caught using traps, nets, spears, and weirs. Spearing required the construction and use of artificial channels and platforms. Utensils were carved from wood. Women made woven cedar, juniper, or spruce root baskets, including water containers and cooking pots. Women also made the all-important mats of tule and other grasses, whose uses included houses, bedding (skins were also used), privacy screens, waterproofing, holding food, and wrapping corpses. There was also some sun-dried pottery covered with fish skin.
Severe epidemics in the late eighteenth century and in the late 1840s and early 1850s depleted the Sanpoil population considerably. Sanpoils were among the Indians who visited Catholic missionaries at Kettle Falls in 1838. By avoiding the wars of the 1850s and by consciously eschewing contact with non-Indians, they managed to remain free until 1872, when they were moved to the Colville Reservation. Even after confinement, the Sanpoils refused government tools, preferring to hunt, fish, and gather by traditional means and to conduct small-scale farming.