The Chilcotin population stood at approximately 1,500 in the seventeenth century. It increased to possibly 3,500 in the late eighteenth century. Chilcotin is a Northern Athapaskan language.
Boys, and girls to some extent, went into seclusion at adolescence to acquire a guardian spirit. Spirits, which could be any natural phenomenon, gave the person songs and dances as well as protective power. A person who acquired many spirits might become a shaman and engage in curing and seeing what most people could not. Shamans could use their power for evil as well as good, although evil against an individual was generally considered to be practiced only for the general good. Illnesses that were not soul related were treated by medical specialists.
Three or four autonomous bands were each composed of camp groups. Bands were defined as people sharing a wintering territory. There was no overall leadership, and the people never joined or acted together in any way.
Bands were divided into social classes of nobles, commoners, and slaves. Nobles and commoners were arranged into clans, the most powerful of which was Raven. Descent was bilateral. Although sharing was highly valued, some people accumulated more material goods than did others. In those cases, the surplus was generally given away—effectively exchanged for prestige—in feasts. High rank was obtained by giving potlatches.
Early adolescence was a time for adult training. Boys focused on endurance and survival skills. Girls were isolated during their first menstrual period, at which time they observed several behavioral restrictions and performed domestic tasks. Marriage occurred shortly after this adult training. Most marriages were arranged by parents with input from the children.
Women generally did all the camp work; men were responsible for getting animal foods, fighting, and making tools. The dead were buried in the ground, cremated, or simply left under a pile of rocks or branches. Social control was largely internalized. Extreme violators were ostracized or, rarely, killed.
People generally lived in rectangular, pole-framed, earth-covered lodges with bark or brush walls and gable roofs. An open space at the top served as a smoke hole. There were also small, subterranean winter houses and dome-shaped sweat houses.
Men hunted a variety of animals including caribou, elk, mountain goat, sheep, and sometimes bear. Small animals like marmots, beaver, and rabbits were trapped, as were fowl. Men and women caught fish such as trout, whitefish, and salmon. Women gathered camas and other roots as well as a variety of berries.
Chilcotins acquired salmon from the Shuswaps and Bella Coolas. They also imported shell ornaments, cedar-bark headbands, wooden containers, and stone pestles from the Bella Coolas. They sent dried berries, paints, and furs to the Bella Coolas and furs, dentalium shells, and goat hair blankets woven by the Bella Coolas to other tribes. The people made fine coiled basketry with designs of humans and animals as well as geometric shapes. Although most travel was overland, men carved spruce-bark and dugout canoes, some with pointed prows like those of the interior Salish. Snowshoes were used for winter travel.
Dress generally consisted of moccasins, buckskin aprons, belts, and leggings. Cold weather gear included caps; robes of marmot, hare, or beaver; and woven wool and fur blankets. Men's hair was generally no longer than shoulder length, although women grew their hair long and often wore it in two braids. The people used a number of personal ornaments of bone, shell, teeth, and claws.
Trespass was a reason to fight, as were murder and feuding. Fighters wore red and black face paint. Ritual purification, including vomiting, took place after a raid. Those who had killed lived apart from others for a time.
Chilcotins first encountered non-Natives in either 1793 or 1815. Fort Alexandria, a trading post, was established in 1821. A gold strike around the Fraser River about 1860 led to the large-scale invasion of Indian lands and the widespread destruction of resources, with no compensation. Indian villages and even graves were looted by the newcomers.
There was a serious smallpox epidemic about 1862. Chilcotins sent out war parties to attack road builders. Several warriors, including Chiefs Tellot, Elexis, and Klatsassin, were captured and hanged. After the epidemics and the fighting, many survivors worked on non-Native–owned ranches, since Indians were explicitly excluded from preempting land, and much of their land was confiscated.
Missionaries helped establish villages that became reserves. They also significantly influenced the selection of chiefs, or headmen. Some groups merged with the Shuswaps and Carriers on the Fraser River at that time. Most were located on three reserves by 1900 and were largely acculturated. Stonies, or Stone Chilcotin bands, remained semitraditional in the western mountains. In the early twentieth century, most people hayed and/or sold a few head of cattle or some furs for a living. There was little contact with the outside world until the 1960s.
The westernmost people still cross the mountains to visit the Bella Coolas. Public lands containing natural resources from which Chilcotins traditionally derived subsistence have steadily decreased since the 1960s. Children attend various band and/or provincial and/or private schools.