The Wintu were organized into autonomous tribelets comprised of extended family groups, with the basic social, political and economic unit being the village. A sedentary foraging people, they occupied permanent villages near rivers and streams. Villages were territorial in that they claimed particular hunting and gathering areas as their own. Others who wished to use the land were required to obtain permission, and usually gave the owners "gifts" in payment for hunting and gathering on their territory. Autonomous, tribelets often cooperated on "projects or came together for celebrations and religious ceremonies" (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).
Village leaders were men who were "well liked", knowledgeable, and good singers and dancers. While leadership was often passed from father to son, if the son did not possess the required qualifications, another man would be chosen to lead. The leader's duties included arranging meetings and dances; it was also his responsibility to invite leaders from other villages to attend important functions. Village members provided their leaders with gifts of food, which they then redistributed at feasts and gatherings (Lapena 326).
Marriage was simply a matter of the couple living together in their own household. Taboos existed against marriage between cousins and other close relatives; therefore, marriages were exogamous (Lapena 329). Marriage partners usually came from neighboring villages, which aided inter-village relations. Chiefs practiced POLYGYNY, often marrying women from distant villages. This provided the chiefs with a widespread kinship network that they could call on in times of need (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).
Parents gave a feast when their sons reached puberty, and had killed their first deer or caught their first salmon. No other ceremony was given to mark the passage of a boy into manhood. Girls had a more elaborate rite of passage. When they reached their first menses they were secluded for several months. During this time they only ate acorn soup, observed taboos against touching their bodies, and received life instructions from elders. During the first five days of seclusion, a girl was not allowed to fall asleep, as it was believed that dreaming would be harmful to her future health and sanity. In the fall, a puberty dance with five days of singing and dancing was held to honor several girls at the same time (Lapena 328).
A large number of taboos were observed during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. Births took place in the menstrual hut or in other specially constructed huts and were attended by midwives. Both parents observed food taboos during pregnancy and after the baby's birth. New mothers remained in seclusion for one month after childbirth (Lapena 327).
The dead were buried in graveyards near villages, and they were interred with personal items, their dogs and acorn meal water. Those who had contact with the deceased underwent purification rituals. Mourning lasted for one year, and widows cut their hair as was the tradition throughout Northern California, and blackened their faces with pitch and charcoal. The name of the deceased was not spoken again until someone else had been given the name (Lapena 328).
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