Indians – 03 Social Organization

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades

 Social Organization


Klamath villages were composed of one or more bilaterally extended families, headed by men of wealth and influence (laqi). Household membership was flexible, being formed on many principles. Such households could include the nuclear families of the senior male’s son or daughter, his siblings and their kin, kin of his wife or wives, aged parents, and friends (Stem n.d.:28). The range of size of such villages is difficult to reconstruct. Assuming Stem’s estimate of 70 Klamath villages and an aboriginal population of 1000, each village would have held on the average fourteen persons. Spier (1930:53-54) gives an example of a household centering on a male shaman, numbering twenty in all.

Marriage was accompanied by a payment of bridewealth, consistent with the rather attenuated form of the wealth complex to be found in the Plateau. Residence was usually uxorilocal (with the wife’s parents) immediately after marriage, shifting to a virilocal (with the husband’s parents) after children were born and substantial wealth accumulated (Stern nd:29: cf Spier 1930:53). There was no rule of village exogamy, though Spier noted a tendency for endogamy within the tribelet. Polygyny was permitted. Both the sororate (marriage with several sisters) and the levirate (marriage of a widow by the younger brother of a deceased husband) were considered appropriate though not obligatory (Spier 1930: 43-51; Spencer et al 1977:180-182)

Klamath society was ranked, insofar as “chiefs” were recognized and slaves were held. Nonetheless, the Klamath did not manifest the social differentiation known to Northwest Coast societies: chiefly rank was not hereditary, nor was there any class-like distinction of nobles and commoners. In traditional Klamath society the influence of such “chiefs” (or better, head-men) within each community or tribelet was strictly limited: “the Klamath made little of chiefs …. rich men, leaders in war, but they were speakers only, offering an example To the group by their success in wealth” (Spencer et al. 1977:180). (1) In contrast, shamans had great importance. As Spier noted, “The shaman himself is. or was, the outstanding figure of Klamath society. He had no rival in the chiefs, the rich man, until the coming of the whites brought a redistribution of emphasis in Klamath life” (Spier 1930:94)

Slaves were captured in war, and seeking slaves in fact provided a major motive for raids. Slaves were primarily Achomawi or Atsugewi, though Northern Paiute, Shasta, and some Takelma were also taken. However, the Indian (or at least Klamath) slaveholding cannot be equated in any simple terms with Euro-American practices. The term lo’ks meant equally “slave,” “war captive,” or simply “foreigner,” and according to Spencer, did not imply a degraded status (Spencer 1952a:5). Spier commented that “It is suite likely that a slave’s life is much like that of any poor Klamath” (Spier 1930:40).

Until the nineteenth century, at least, trade was probably of minor importance to the Klamath and following from that fact, the potential for differences in wealth comparatively limited. Spier noted the following wealth items mentioned by Klamath informants (in order of frequency):

slaves, horses, beads–and not always dentalium–food, archers’ equipment, furs and hides, especially elk hides, Plains type garments, armor, large houses, buffalo skins, canoes. (Spier 1930:43)

Many of the items were trade goods, and scarce or unavailable until the expansion of the southern Plateau trade networks in the early nineteenth century (see Spier 1930:41-43; Stern 1956a:230-34)