Indians – 04 Ritual and World View

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades

 Ritual and World View

Spier described a number of significant rituals for the Klamath Female puberty was marked by a five-night ceremony, similar in many respects to the puberty ceremonies of the Modoc and Shasta (Spier 1930:68-71; Voegelin 1942:122-28). A complex series of shamanistic performances occurred during mid-winter (Spier 1930:112-22). First sucker ceremonies were held in the spring (Spier 1930:148), Cremation of the dead was “the universal practice, even for suicides, the newborn, and the stillborn” (Spier 1930:71).

As with other Indian peoples of the region, however, the ritual life of the Klamath centered on the quest for spirit power. The Klamath recognized a variety of spirits, “predominantly birds and animals, winds, lightning and the like, and a handful of anthropomorphic beings” (Spier 1930:93). Any one of these could be sought for blessings. Power or good luck could be sought for a variety of situations, among these “curing, gambling, love-making, and shamanistic trickery” (Spier 1930:93) Spirit manifested themselves through songs, heard in the seeker’s dreams. (1) These formed the key to spirit power. As Spier has interpreted this view,

The spirit never manifests itself but in the song; the singer is the vehicle, the voice of the spirit. Song and spirit are one and the same thing. (Spier 1930:95)

The spirit quest followed a consistent form. Anyone could seek power, and seemingly all or almost all undertook a quest at least once in a lifetime. The quest involved separation, a retreat to lonely and thus powerful places:

Power is sought in lonely spots in the mountains, in mountain pools, in eddies in the rivers, in all places where spirits are known to dwell. A boy is sent into the mountains on a vigil of several days, perhaps five. … He must fast and must not touch his hands to his face, but must use a scratcher instead. He must sleep without covering and warm himself only occasionally by a little fire. He runs about constantly throughout the night, piling rocks into high piles… and swimming in the mountain pools. He prays, calling loudly to the spirits, and finally gets an answer. (Spier 1930:95)

Verne Ray noted that in both Klamath and Modoc cultures, there was considerable emphasis on “making artificial rock piles for religious or commemorative purposes and for attributing mythological significance to rock piles of unknown origin” (Ray 1963:xiii).

From a traditional Klamath perspective, one can contrast two ritual forms: the vision quest proper, most commonly undertaken at puberty, whose aim is to gain or augment spirit power; and the crisis quest, a retreat to sacred places at times of tragedy, often by entire families, whose aim is spiritual healing of the troubled or bereaved (G. Bettels, pers, comm; see also Spier 1930:94).

The location of the quest was not random, but reflected what could be termed a spiritual geography, a world view in which specific spirits or powers dwelt in particular points within mountains, lakes, or rivers. “Spirits are legion and in many cases are localized, so that one looking over the countryside finds it rich in religious connotation” (Spier 1930:100).

Certain individuals pursued the spirit quest to a much greater degree, developing powers which set them apart as extraordinary individuals. As curers, diviners, and teachers these specialists (qyoqs)-predominantly but not invariably men–had a central place in Klamath life:

These “medicine-men” do not only treat the sick, but they arrange and preside over the “doctor-dances” in the communal dance house, are consulted for dreams, predict the weather, during the pond-lily harvest give advice on the more important incidents of tribal pursuits, and are much dreaded on account of their alleged power of sorcery. (Gatschet 1890: Pt, 2:135)

While the qyoqs had outstanding importance, outshining the chiefs until Euro-American influence altered the political balance, their powers were only intensified versions of the power that all individuals could seek.