Indians – 01 Introduction

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades


Crater Lake National Park stands at or near the territorial boundaries of four Indian peoples. To the east and southeast lay the lands of the Klamath, to the southwest the lands of the Takelma, to the west the lands of the Upper Umpqua, and to the northwest the lands of the Molala.

The post-contact experience of the Klamath was very different from that of the Oregon tribes of southwest Oregon, including the Takelma, Molala, and Upper Umpqua. In southwest Oregon the de facto policy was one of near-extermination, with survivors forced to reservations far from their homelands in contrast, as Leslie Spier observed of the Klamath, “the drastic destruction of the western and central Oregon tribes had passed them by” (Spier 1927a:45). As a consequence, much is known of the aboriginal culture of the Klamath, far less of the other three peoples considered here. Rather than attempting to summarize all aspects of a very large literature, these ethnographic descriptions will focus on those aspects of Klamath, Takelma, Upper Umpqua, or Molala life most relevant for an understanding of the cultural context of Crater Lake.

The Klamath were bordered to the west by the Takelma and the Molala. To the southwest the Klamath bordered the Shasta; to the south. The Modoc (a group with close social and cultural links to the Klamath); and to the east, the Northern Paiute. The distinctive features of the Klamath Basin environment and the interactions-whether peaceful or warlike–between these tribes in a sense defined Klamath territory.

Nonetheless, “territory” must be understood in the context of tribal, rather than state-level, political organization Rather than conceiving of Klamath (or Takelma, or Molala) territory as a definite, uniquely held domain, it is more accurate to distinguish between a core homeland and a peripheral resource area which might be utilized by several contiguous groups. The following comments regarding territory in aboriginal California could apply in large measure to the Klamath as well: each of the Indian groups in northern California, especially those in high elevation areas, claimed a nuclear territory which constituted their national homeland and in which their permanent villages were located. These tribal homelands seemed to be universally recognized by the various Indian nations, and mainly consisted of river valleys, basins. and lakeshores The intervening uplands were exploited only seasonally in the warmer months, and almost invariably, two or more groups exploited these same territories. (Jensen and Farber 1982:21-22)

Klamath territory centered on Upper Klamath Lake, Klamath Marsh, and the Williamson River. Here most of the permanent villages were found, with some additional settlements located in the uplands to the east, along the Sprague River Seasonal camps, in contrast, were “established over a much wider territory, as far, it would seem, as the natural limits of [the Klamath Basin] drainage area” (Spier 1930:8). To the north the Klamath ranged to the headwaters of the Deschutes River, to the east some seventy miles to the escarpment above Summer and Silver Lakes, and to the west to the peaks of the Cascades (Stern n.d.:8). Spier noted that “the wide plain south of Klamath Falls seems to have been unoccupied,” though during the spring fishing the Klamath and Modoc tribes met on Lost River, the Klamath occupying the northern, and the Modoc occupying the southern bank of that river (Spier 1930:9).

Klamath territory stood at the periphery of several major aboriginal culture areas: the Plateau, Great Basin, Northwest Coast, and California. Accordingly, aboriginal Klamath culture reflected a number of diverse influences in such matters as economy, social organization, and values (see Stern n.d.:10-12). Klamath culture was shaped by its specialized adaptation to a marsh, lake, and river environment, seen in the predominant place of fish and pond-lily seeds (wokas) in the Klamath diet. Beyond this adaptive focus, however, Klamath culture reflected a number of influences:

one may note the California flavor of the separatistic hamlets with their loose social and political organization; the weakly developed (and possibly late) wealth complex, suggestive of the Northwest and the Oregon coast; and the formalized shamanistic religion which points to affinities with tribes in the Plateau, California, and elsewhere (Spencer 1952b:217)

The term “Klamath” was apparently derived from Chinook (Stern nd:l) The Klamath term of self-reference is maqlaqs. However, the term was frequently used as part of the placename of a particular Klamath group, rather than designating the ethnic collectivity as a whole. For example, the largest Klamath grouping, located on Klamath Marsh and the Upper Williamson River, “was known as ‘ewksikni maqlaqs, or simply by the former term (<‘ews, lake)” (Stern n.d.:2). (1)

Estimates of the aboriginal Klamath population are conflicting and difficult to evaluate. Spier suggested 1200 persons at the time of contact, of whom an estimated 600 made up the ‘ewksikni or Klamath Marsh division (Spier 1930:5). Stem (n.d.:14) has suggested 1000 for the aboriginal Klamath population. Klamath elders have suggested that the pre-contact population (including Klamath, Modoc, and Yahuskin Paiute groups, which were jointly to compose the Klamath Reservation), would have numbered about 2000.

Given current debates regarding population levels in pre-contact North America, such figures should be taken cautiously. Nonetheless, available estimates for the region suggest that population densities for the Shasta to the southwest or for the tribes of the Oregon Coast were perhaps ten times that of the Klamath and Modoc, while that of the Northern Paiute to the east were perhaps one-fourth of the Klamath figure. (Stem 1966:5)

1. Here and elsewhere an glottal stop is marked by an apostrophe (‘), substituted for the more technically correct symbol (7) employed by Stern. Other symbols used here (following Stern) include capitalized letters (M, Y, etc.) to indicate aspiration. and a dot() to indicate length. See Stern n.d.:7

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