Klamath (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Klamath is a word of uncertain derivation. The Klamaths’ self-designation is Maklak, "People." The Klamath were culturally similar to the Modoc and other northern California Indian peoples.

Location In the early nineteenth century, Klamath people lived on 20 million acres in south-central Oregon and northeastern California. The land included forests and mountains of the Cascade Range, highland lakes and marshes, and the headwaters of the Klamath River. Today the descendants of these people live mostly in Klamath County, Oregon, and in regional cities and towns.

Population Perhaps 1,200 Klamath Indians lived in the early nineteenth century. In 1958, on the eve of termination, the tribal rolls stood at 2,133. In 1993, the tribe had about 2,700 enrolled members.

Language Klamath is a dialect of Lutuami, a Penutian language.

Historical Information

History Klamath Indians were probably spared direct contact with non-natives until the arrival in 1829 of Peter Skene Ogden. The white invasion of the 1850s also brought disease and scattered the game, destroying traditional subsistence patterns. In an 1864 treaty, the Klamath and Modoc people ceded over 13 million acres of land for a 1.1-million-acre reservation on former Klamath lands in southern Oregon. In addition to Klamaths and Modocs, the reservation included Pit River Indians, Shastas, Northern Paiutes, and other groups. These Indians agreed to end the practice of slavery at that time.

Some Modocs left the reservation in 1870 because of friction between themselves and the Klamaths. The latter remained aloof from the 1872-1873 Modoc war. By the end of the nineteenth century, all Indians on the Klamath Reservation were known as the Klamath tribe. In 1901, the government agreed to pay the tribe $537,000 for misappropriated lands. Other land claims settlements, for millions of dollars, followed during the course of the century.

In 1958 the U.S. government terminated the Klamath Reservation. Although the government had long coveted the timber-rich reservation, whereas many Klamaths were strongly against it, termination was hastened by a tribal leader at the time. In 1958, 77 percent of the tribe voted to withdraw from the collective entity and take individual shares of the land proceeds. In 1974, the remaining 23 percent agreed to sell the rest of the reservation for per capita shares. At that time, the Klamaths lost the last of their land base. Termination has had a profoundly negative effect on members of the tribe.

Religion Male and female shamans acquired power through fasting, visions, and prayer. The most powerful shamans, able to cure illness as a result of their possession of very strong spirit power, were generally men. Curing itself was dramatic in a literal sense. Shamans also controlled weather, accompanied war parties, affected hunting, and found lost items. They held winter seances to demonstrate their power.

People sought spiritual help at puberty and at other times by going to remote places to fast, pray, and swim. Powers came from spirits that were associated with nature. Spirits conferred power and songs, which might provide luck and skills, in dreams and visions.

Government Traditionally, the Klamath were organized into from four to seven autonomous subdivisions or tribelets. Each tribelet may have consisted of about ten winter hamlets. Each had a chief (chosen either as a consequence of wealth or the ability to provide leadership in war), but shamans probably wielded more authority.

Customs Acquiring wealth and prestige was the basic goal, although the concept was nowhere near as developed as it was along the Northwest Coast. Klamaths collected items such as skins, food, shells, and weapons. Industriousness and acquisitiveness were valued, and the people practiced little hospitality or sharing. The tribelets were as likely to feud as to intermarry.

Summer was a time for gathering, hunting, and warfare. Exchanging gifts (the bride price) constituted a marriage. Divorce was not uncommon, although it was complicated by property arrangements. Klamaths flattened their babies’ foreheads. Corpses were wrapped in tule mats and, with their possessions, carried by canoe to a funeral pyre. The house was also burned. Following the ceremony, relatives of the deceased sweated in the sweat lodge for purification. Dances were generally nonceremonial in nature.

Dwellings Permanent winter hamlets were generally built on lake shores and near marshes. Houses were semisubterranean, circular multifamily structures, covered with earth on a wood frame. Entrance was through the roof. Several nuclear families might live in one lodge. Circular, mat-covered wood frame houses served in summer or on hunting trips. Winter and summer sweat lodges were built in a style similar to that of the dwellings.

Diet Fish, mostly freshwater whitefish and suckers, was the food staple. The Klamaths also ate waterfowl. In summer, women gathered roots, berries, and other plant foods, and men hunted deer, antelope, and small game. Wild waterlily seeds (wokas) were harvested in late summer; they were eventually ground into flour.

Key Technology Fishing equipment consisted of nets, traps, and spears. Bows were made of juniper or yew; arrowheads were of obsidian or stone. Twined baskets and mats served a large variety of purposes.

Trade Klamath Indians participated in local trade patterns. With the arrival in the region of horses, the Klamath engaged in large-scale raiding for slaves and goods, which they then traded in the north for horses.

Notable Arts Basketry was well developed into a fine art.

Transportation Klamath Indians used both dugout canoes and snowshoes.

Dress Women wore basketry caps, and moccasins were made of tule before the switch to buckskin. Men and women wore fiber skirts, as well as tule leggings, sandals, and fur mittens in winter. After the Plains influence became stronger, in the nineteenth century, they switched to fringed fiber or buckskin aprons. They also pierced their ears and noses for dentalia shells and wore tattoos.

War and Weapons War leaders were selected on an ad hoc basis. The Klamath were frequently at war with the Achumawi, Shasta, and Kalapuya. They raided these groups, especially in the early nineteenth century, for slaves and goods, which they traded in the north for horses. Raiding parties might consist of men from different tribelets, since war was the main activity that brought people together (women sometimes accompanied war parties). Revenge was a major cause of war. Offensive and defensive equipment included fine bows and arrows and elk hide and slat armor, clubs, and spears. The main strategy lay in surprise attacks. After victory, warriors would collect booty and slaves, mutilate and dismember the dead, and perform a scalp dance that lasted for several nights.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Klamath Reservation is located in Chiloquin, Oregon. The General Council (total enrolled adult population) chooses an eight-member business committee. A constitution, originally adopted in 1929, was reestablished in 1975.

Economy At least 70 percent of Klamaths live below the poverty level (before termination, Klamaths were one of the most self-sufficient of all U.S. tribes).

Legal Status The Klamath Indian Tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity (rerecognized in 1986). In the 1970s, federal courts recognized Klamath hunting and fishing rights, despite the absence of a land base.

Daily Life The Klamath tribe has a new dental facility and plans for new tribal offices and a cultural center. Cultural revitalization programs include an annual sucker ceremony, basket-weaving classes, and native-language textbooks. Klamath people also practice such traditional crafts as beadwork and bone work. They host an all-Indian basketball tournament in February and March and a powwow on December 31. Treaty Days in August celebrate the restoration of tribal status.

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