Indians – 05 Myth

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades


Myth telling was generally reserved for winter, when family groups had resumed to the village settlements, and the harsh weather limited extensive travel:

the usual setting for Klamath myth-narration was the dark interior of a lodge, on a cold winter night when the earth lay snowbound. This was the season of social gatherings, the period when shamanistic performances drew many spectators of all ages together. (Stern l956b:43)

While obviously myths are passed from older to younger generations, there is some evidence that myth-telling was particularly a female concern, and Stern has commented on “the common tendency for myths to be transmitted through the maternal grandmother” (Stem 1956b:4). (1)

The most significant figure of Klamath myth is Kmukampsh, the “ancient old man” and Klamath version of the “trickster-transformer” character common to much of North American myth (Stem 1953:164). Kmukampsh is the Klamath “culture hero, creator, ordainer of the present order.” In one myth, Gopher and Kmukampsh together create the Klamath landscape through their play. Then,

Kmukampsh peoples the world with animals and, placing a characteristic material in each territory–obsidian for the Achomawi and Paiute, marble in the Shasta country, tules for the Klamath–from which mankind, it seems, arises. (Stem 1953:164). (2)

Kmukampsh is particularly lecherous, and a number of myths comment on the prodigious size of his penis. In a characteristic myth, Kmukampsh tries to seduce the wife of his foster son, Aisis. Kmukampsh uses his powers to raise Aisis into the sky, and then impersonates him before his wife. Eventually Aisis manages to return to earth, and Kmukampsh is tricked and destroyed, only to come to life once again (Stern 1953:166). (3)

Among the other key figures of Klamath myth are coyote, skunk, bear, and owl. Probably the most popular figures are the paired Mink and his younger brother, Weasel (or Old Marten and Weasel).

Mink is clever and resourceful, a warrior, “tricky,” but consistently just in the roles he plays. Like a shaman, “he knows everything that happens.” … Weasel, on the other hand, is the marplot, “always getting into something.” . Mischievous, curious, a restless bundle of random activity, [he is] a “kid brother” who wants to try what Mink is doing, and fails in the attempt. (Stern 1953:161) (4)

Compilations of Klamath myth are given in Gatschet 1890; Barker 1963a; and Ramsey 1977. For a summary of the major Klamath myths, see Stern 1963b. Several Klamath myths concern Crater Lake (see chap. 4).

1 On the other hand, Gordon Bettels commented that in his experience it is primarily men who recount myths and tales.

2 A version is given in Ramsey 1977:185-86.

3 The myth of Kmukampsh and Aisis is given in Gatschet 1890:1:94-97.

4 For a comparative perspective on the elder/younger pair in Plateau myth, see Sapir 1909:34


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