The Carriers were strongly influenced by Northwest Coast tribes and were culturally similar to the Sekanis and the Chilcotins. Carrier territory is the region of Eutsuk, Francis, Babine, and Stuart Lakes and the upper Skeena and Fraser Rivers in north central British Columbia. Their population numbered approximately 8,500 in the late eighteenth century. Carriers spoke dialects (Lower, Central, and Upper) of a Northern Athapaskan language.
Traditional religious belief may have included recognition of a supreme deity in the sky. Of key importance were a host of supernatural beings, mostly animal based, with whom the people tried to communicate through fasting and dreams. Through their rituals, the people sought to gain the favor and power of these spiritual beings. The people also believed in life after death, perhaps in a land to the west. Some especially Tsimshian-influenced groups adopted a secret cannibal society.
Young men fasted and dreamed in remote places in an effort to attract a guardian spirit protector (optional in the southern regions). Those with special power became shamans, who could cure illness, although they themselves might be killed if a patient died. Shamans could also retrieve lost souls and forecast the future.
Each of roughly fifteen independent subtribes/regional bands was composed of one or more villages/local bands. The subtribes were associated with specific subsistence areas. In the south, leaders were heads of extended families who acted as spokesmen and subsistence coordinators. Shamans were also politically important in the south.
The most important political unit in central and northern areas was the hereditary matrilineal clan, of which there were roughly twenty. They were divided into houses, which had hereditary chiefs who supervised subsistence areas, provided for the poor, and represented clan interests in councils.
Society was divided into ranked, hereditary social classes of nobles, commoners, and a few slaves. Depending on the specific location, descent could be through the mother's or father's line. Except on the Tsimshian border, commoners had the possibility of obtaining sufficient goods to give potlatches and attain the noble rank. Crests were displayed on totem poles, houses, and regalia. Crests, titles, and honors were considered clan property and could usually be bought and sold.
Trespass was considered a serious offense, but chiefs could often work out an arrangement or decide on appropriate compensation. The extended family was the main social and economic unit. Potlatching occurred in the north. Feasts were given and presents distributed at important life cycle events. The installation of a new chief was considered the most important occasion of all, requiring numerous potlatches. The entire potlatch complex became especially important from the late eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries.
Women were responsible for most domestic tasks, such as carrying water and firewood, cooking, tanning skins, and sewing clothing. Men made houses, tools, and weapons; fought; and acquired animal foods. Women gave birth in a specially constructed hut assisted by their husbands and/or other women. Names were taken from a hereditary stock, if available, or from dreams if not.
At adolescence, boys were encouraged to increase their level of physical activity, whereas girls were secluded and their activity restricted for up to two years. Young women selected a mate with their parents' assistance. The couple was engaged after the man gave valuable items to his prospective mother-in-law, and married after the couple spent the night together at a later date. They lived with the woman's parents for up to a year while the new husband helped provide for his new in-laws.
Corpses were cremated. Widows were expected to hold their husband's burning body for as long as they could. In the east, women carried the charred bones of their husbands on their backs for several years.
Semipermanent villages served as bases for hunting and fishing expeditions. Rectangular winter houses were built of pole frames covered with spruce bark, whose gabled roofs extended to the ground. These houses held several families. Some southern groups built underground winter lodges similar to those of the Chilcotins and Shuswaps. Summer houses had low, plank walls and plank or bark gabled roofs. There were also specialty menstrual, fishing, sweat, and smoking structures.
Fish, especially salmon, was perhaps the most important item in the diet, although this was less true in the south. People fished through the ice for carp and other species. Before the snow fell, men hunted caribou, mountain goats, and bear as well as smaller game such as beaver, marmot, and hare. Women gathered a number of roots, bulbs, greens, and berries.
The Carriers imported woven baskets from the Bella Coolas, Chilcotins, and Shuswaps; Chilkat blankets, cedar boxes, and stone labrets from the Tsimshians; and wooden cooking boxes, eulachon (smelt) oil, shell ornaments, and copper bracelets from other coast tribes. There was also some intra-tribal trade. The people mainly exported prepared hides and furs.
Men made spruce- and birchbark canoes as well as cottonwood dugouts. Goods were carried overland with the help of a tumpline and backpack. Snowshoes and toboggans arrived with the non-Natives. Skin clothing consisted of robes, leggings, and moccasins, with fur caps and mittens added in cold weather. In warm weather, men sometimes went naked; women wore a knee-length apron. High-status men wore Chilkat blankets for special occasions, and similarly ranked northern women wore wooden labrets in their mouths. Other ornaments were made of dentalium, bone, and haliotis shell.
The Carriers may have originated east of the Rocky Mountains and were probably in their historic location for at least several centuries before contact with non-Natives. Major epidemics began in the late eighteenth century, about the time they met the Scotch trader and explorer Alexander Mackenzie (1793).
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the Carriers began to acquire iron and other items of non-Native manufacture. With the growing value of the pelts of interior animals (beaver, marten, and lynx), Carrier wealth increased with their ability to export these products. Carrier control of some local trade networks in the early nineteenth century allowed some chiefs to amass wealth and power. Some high-ranking people began to intermarry with Bella Coola and Gitksan families around this time, as Northwest Coast cultural influences became much more pronounced.
The first local trade fort (James) was built in 1806 at Stuart Lake. A quasi Christian prophet movement arose among the Carriers beginning in the 1830s. An entire band was exterminated by smallpox in 1837. Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1840s. Penetration by miners, farmers, and ranchers from the midnineteenth century on led to increased disease and general problems for the Indians.
Another ramification of increased contact was the decline of the potlatching complex. Retention of material goods became more important than status gained by giving them away. Also, there was a growing need to accumulate items of non-Native manufacture just to survive, so giving them away became difficult. The Catholic Church also worked to eliminate potlatching.
Wage work, such as on ranches, as guides, in canneries, in sawmills, and at construction sites, began to take the place of traditional subsistence activities. The Carriers were prevented by law from preempting land after 1866. The Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, bisected Carrier territory. Most reserves were created in the later nineteenth century, although additional ones were established in the early twentieth century. Subsistence activities were increasingly government regulated by then.
Another railway line, completed in 1914, led to an influx of settlers and speculators. Commercial mining and lumbering began in the early twentieth century. Lumbering, including clear-cutting, expanded sharply after World War II. In the 1970s, the Carriers began organizing politically over the chronically unresolved issues of Native land title and rights.
Most Carriers today live in individual houses. Many still speak Carrier. Clans exist today, especially among the northern and central groups, although they are vastly less important than they used to be. Potlatch privileges and responsibilities are rarely observed except among the groups nearest the Tsimshian people. Most people are Christian, at least nominally, although ancient beliefs linger as well, including the power of dreams and the efficacy of shamans. Children attend band and/or provincial and/or private schools.
Local anti-Indian sentiment remains deeply entrenched. Carrier bands along the Nechako River have strongly opposed the completion of a hydro-electric project, the initial stages of which created forced relocations and other hardships for the people beginning in the 1950s. Struggles also continue over issues such as land title and rights. One example is the development of the so-called Mackenzie Grease Trail, which continues against Indian wishes and portrays them (when they are not ignored entirely) as little more than tourist attractions.