Sanpoil (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Sanpoil, or San Poil is derived from a native word possibly referring to what may have been their self-designation, Sinpauelish (Snpui’lux). They were culturally and linguistically similar to the neighboring Nespelem Indians.

Location Late-eighteenth-century Sanpoils lived near the Columbia and the Sanpoil Rivers, in north-central Washington. The environment is one of desert and semidesert. Today, most Sanpoils live in Ferry and Okanagon Counties, Washington, and in regional cities and towns.

Population The Sanpoil population around 1775 was approximately 1,600. Today, perhaps several hundred Indians claim Sanpoil descent.

Language With the Nespelem, the Sanpoil spoke a particular dialect of Interior Salish.

Historical Information

History Severe epidemics in the late eighteenth century, and again 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 Sanpoil refused government tools, preferring to hunt, fish, and gather by traditional means and to conduct small-scale farming.

Religion Individuals sought guardian spirits through the traditional means of singing, fasting, praying, and performing feats of endurance. Such spirit quests were considered mandatory for men and optional for women. Prepubescent boys generally undertook a series of one-night vigils. Many people acquired between three and six spirit helpers.

The spirits in question were those of animals; they assured the seeker of luck and various skills. Songs often accompanied received powers, which were generally called upon well after the quest: When one had settled into an adult life, the returning spirit power caused an illness that had to be cured by a shaman.

Male shamans outnumbered female shamans. Their powerful spirits helped them to cure illness; they could also harm people if they chose. Among the causes of illness, in addition to a returning spirit, were breaking taboos and suffering bewitching. Shamans were paid for successful cures.

The five-day first salmon ritual was the most important ceremony. It was held under the direction of the salmon chief. Other important religious occasions included the midwinter spirit dances and the first fruits rite. The midwinter dances served the additional purposes of bringing people together and releasing winter tensions.

Government Autonomous villages were each led by a chief and a subchief; these lifetime offices were hereditary in theory but 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 30-40 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.

Customs 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. 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, 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.

Dwellings Sanpoil Indians used the typical Plateau-style winter houses. One was a single-family structure, circular and semisubterranean, about 10-16 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. Entrance 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 tule-mat houses consisting of a pole framework covered by grass, earth, and tule mats. These houses were about 16 feet wide, between 24 to about 60 feet long, and about 14 feet high, with gabled roofs. Entrance 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 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.

Diet 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 or 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.

Key Technology 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.

Trade The Sanpoil engaged in extensive local trade, communication, visiting, and intermarriage.

Notable Arts Artistic expression was seen mainly in carved wood items, coiled baskets with geometric designs, and mat weaving.

Transportation Dugout canoes served as water transportation. Horses arrived about the mid-eighteenth century.

Dress The Sanpoil wore surprisingly little clothing. Woven bark and, later, dressed buckskin provided breechclouts, ponchos, and aprons. Women also wore woven caps. Men wore fur leggings in winter; women’s leggings were generally made of hemp. Some winter clothing, such as mittens, caps, woven blankets, and robes, was made from the fur of rabbits and other animals. Men plucked their facial hair. Both sexes plucked their eyebrows and wore earrings, necklaces, and face paint.

War and Weapons The Sanpoil were known for their general pacifism, even in the face of attacks by the Shuswap, Coeur d’Alene, and Nez Perce.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Colville Reservation (1872) is located in Ferry and Okanogan Counties, Washington. It consists of 1,011,495 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 3,782. An Indian Reorganization Act constitution, approved in 1938, calls for a 14-member business council and various committees. The Confederated Tribes are members of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and other intertribal organizations.

Economy The reservation economy is built largely around stock raising, farming, logging (including a sawmill) and reforestation, and seasonal labor. There is some mining as well as a meat-packing plant, a log cabin sales business, and tourism-related businesses such as a trading post and gambling enterprises. There is potential for development of hydroelectric resources.

Legal Status The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Confederated Colville Indians are largely acculturated. Language preservation programs are hindered by the lack of a common aboriginal language. Recent efforts to reinvigorate disparate tribal cultures and religions include the presence of the Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce Indians with their Seven Drum religion, the Indian Shaker Church, and the Native American Church. The reservation hosts an annual powwow and a circle celebration. There is also a program of reacquiring and consolidating the land base and a goal to increase the general levels of education. The Colville Business Council wields growing power in regional and statewide issues.

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