Indians – 02 Adaptation

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades



As the archaeological record demonstrates (see Chapter 8), by several thousand years ago the people of the Klamath Basin had developed an efficient and fairly specialized adaptation, emphasizing fish and the marsh-growing wokas, with a secondary dependence on a wide range of roots, seeds, fruit, and shellfish. Animals were commonly hunted with bow and-arrow, though nooses (for deer) and nets (for water birds) were also employed (Barrett 1907:246-47). Traditionally, hunting was not a cultural emphasis; in Leslie Spier’s phrase, “deer rind other game are only of minor importance” (Spier 1930:145). Nonetheless, it had a significant place in the total subsistence round: Spier (1930:156-57) listed over forty species of mammals and birds in the Klamath diet.

klamCollection of reeds

As was characteristic throughout the region, the Klamath subsistence quest involved shifting residence patterns, from quasi-permanent villages near ice-free streams or springs during the winter, to a series of fishing, gathering, and hunting sites through the spring, summer, and fall. Winter dwellings consisted of circular, semi-subterranean earth lodges, roofed with mats, grass, and dirt over a pole frame. Summer dwellings were more ephemeral, being covered with mats (Spier 1930:197-205). The changing seasons and availability of resources largely determined this cycle:

The fixed villages are the winter residences to which people return year after year. Each spring finds them leaving for favorable fishing stations where there are successive fish runs. Through the summer they move to the prairies to gather edible roots and berries or to the mountain and desert to hunt. During most of this time families are widely scattered and the winter villages quite deserted, but with the ripening of pond lily seeds in the marshes during August and September they again congregate. (Spier 1930:10)

As can be seen from Table 3 – 1, fishing was a nearly constant activity, though particularly rich during the spring Wokas provided the plant staple, and its harvest formed a key element of the activity of late summer and fall.

The Klamath Seasonal Round

March move to fishing camps, old remain at winter villages
April fishing, continues in varying intensity year round
May fishing, women dig for ipos, waterfowl eggs gathered, yellow pine cambium sought
June camas gathered in meadows, waterfowl and other small game hunted
July same
August women harvest pond lily seeds (wokas) on lakes, men hunt mule deer and antelopes
September harvest wokas, gather berries in uplands, hunt, fish, return to winter villages
October prepare winter provisions, hunting and fishing restricted
November some hunting and fishing
December some fishing, some hunting of deer, bear and waterfowl, shamanic ceremonies
January some hunting and fishing where possible
February same, provisions often low, in times of famine moss and lodgepole pine cambium eaten

The Klamath caught a variety of fish. Runs of suckers (Catostomidae) and salmon (Oncorhynchus) were particularly important. Fish were available on the Williamson River year-round, hence it supported many settlements, while many other streams had fish runs only in the spring. Fish were generally netted, both at dams constructed in the rivers, and on the lakes, using dugout canoes or tule rafts The Klamath had a sophisticated fishing technology, employing a variety of nets, including triangular dip nets and smaller gill nets (Barrett 1907:247-51; Spier 1930:147-55; Stem n.d.:1S-18).

Harvesting wokas, the seeds of the pond lily (Nuphar polysepala), was a specialized (and crucial) Klamath adaptation. Klamath Marsh is estimated to have contained ten thousand acres of the plant. The seeds were gathered from canoe in the late summer, chiefly by women. The pods were prepared through a series of processes, depending on the maturity of the plant, including fermenting, parching, and grinding. Wokas was roasted and eaten dry, or ground and prepared as porridge or bread. The stored seeds were eaten throughout the year. Coville provided a detailed analysis of the preparation of wokas (See Coville 1904; Spier 1930:160ff; Lang 1988a.)

The Klamath gathered a wide variety of other seeds and roots, including camas (Camassia quamash) and ipos (or epos, Perideridia oregana) (see Coville 1897; Lang 1988a). The search for berries in the late summer brought gathering parties to the uplands, including slopes in the vicinity of Crater Lake:

Late summer and autumn, seeds, berries, and nuts are gathered, the Indians congregating where these are plentiful. Many of those at Klamath marsh, for example, move directly to Huckleberry mountain, southwest of Crater lake, to garner these berries. (Spier 1930:146)

In summary, the Klamath utilized a wide range of animal and plant resources This is suggested by the number of animal and plant terms in the Klamath lexicon. To provide some rough approximation of Klamath animal and plant knowledge, Klamath botanical and zoological terms were compiled from Gatschet’s Klamath Dictionary (1890), Spier’s Klamath Ethnography (1930), and Barker’s Klamath Texts (1963a). In all, 248 animal and 143 plant terms were included. The Klamath animal terms include (in order from most to least numerous) birds, mammals, fish, insects, reptiles, shellfish, and amphibians. Plant categories (again in order of number of entries) include grasses, fruits, trees, roots, other plants, and seeds (see Table 3 – 2). (1)

Klamath Animal Terms

Rank Category Number of Terms Proportion
1 Birds (incl. eggs) 100 40%
2 Mammals 58 23%
3 Fish 39 16%
4 Insects 32 13%
5 Reptiles 11 4%
6 Shellfish 4 2%
6 Amphibians 4 2%

Total Animal Terms Listed = 248 

Klamath Plant Terms

Rank Category Number of Terms Proportion
1 Grass/Tule 36 26%
2 Fruits 35 25%
3 Trees 21 15%
4 Roots 19 13%
5 Other Plants 18 13%
6 Seeds 12 8%

Total Plant Terms Listed = 143 

1 This list was compiled by DR Deny Hewlett, as part of a study of prehistoric settlement and adaptation on the Winema National Forest. (sec R. Winthrop et al. 1989)


<< previousnext >>