The Klamath Indian Tribe

Learn about the history, culture, way of life and current situation of the Klamath Indian tribe.

The Klamath Indian Nation were inhabitants of Oregon, dwelling to the south east of the present day Crater Lake National Park. The territory of the Klamath was bounded by the Upper Klamath Lake, Klamath Marsh and the Williamson River. At the time of first contact with Europeans the Klamath population numbered around 1200 persons.

The Klamath had been living in the Klamath basin for thousands of years. Over that time they had adapted well to the unique environment in which they lived. The marshlands and abundance of rivers meant that the Klamath were to put an emphasis on fishing and the cultivation of marsh growing wokas. They also depended on a wide range of roots, seeds, fruits and shell fish. They also hunted for deer, water birds and small mammals.

The Klamath would live in semi permanent villages that would migrate in accordance with the seasons. In the winter period they would live in villages located near ice free streams. These were the permanent villages to which the people would return after moving to small camps for hunting, fishing and gathering of food throughout the summer, spring and fall. Lodges in the winter village were made of earth and were circular in design. The roof was made of grass and the construction was supported by a sturdy wooden pole.

The Klamath would fish year round. Salmon and suckers were the most popular fishes caught.The Klamath become very proficient in the use of nets in their fishing. They actually devised different styles of net to accommodate different conditions and types of fish. The seed of the pond lily, which is known as woka, was also much used by these people. Throughout the territory of the Klamath there were more than 10,000 acres of this plant. The seeds of the pond lily would be gathered from the water by canoe and then dried out, fermented, parched and ground. The resulting woka could now be eaten raw or made into porridge or bread.

The villages of the Klamath were made up of one or more extended families. They would be headed by men who had attained to a position of social class and material wealth. Villages were small with only about fifteen inhabitants. The Klamath held slaves, who were captured prisoners from rival tribes. The acquiring of slaves was, in fact, sufficient motivation for them to engage on a raiding excursion.

The Klamath were divided into four or five sub tribes, each of whom existed as an autonomous unit. There was no overall uniting political structure among them. Even when one division was attacked by an outside tribe, there was no overriding motivation for other divisions to join them in their resistance.

The Klamath were friendly with the Modoc, who lived to the south of them. The tribes traded freely and marriage alliances between the two tribes were not uncommon. The Klamath also traded with the Shasta. Wokas and beads would be exchanged for buckskins.

The Klamath were a spiritual people, with their worship centered around the quest for spiritual power. They recognised a large number of deities, many of whom were connected with the animals of the Klamath environment. The quest for spiritual power involved separation from one's people and travel to an isolated mountain spot where the person would fast. He was not to touch his hands to his face during this time. He would pray and call out to the spirits and would, eventually, receive his answer.

Certain individuals were set apart as holy men by the Klamath. These men would heal the sick as well as presiding over the numerous religious ceremonies of the people and giving divinely inspired advice in all sorts of matters.

First clashes with the white man came in the 1840s when an expedition led by John C. Fremont entered the Oregon area with the primary aim of clearing it of Indians. The Klamath had occasional victories but the white invasion was too much. In 1864 a treaty was negotiated which ceded vast amounts of territory to the Federal Government. In return they were placed on a reservation. Along with this shift came an intense campaign by the Christian missionaries among the Klamath. Reservation life also meant that many of their cultural practices were no longer possible, even being strictly forbidden by reservation authorities. Despite this, however, the modern day dwellers of the Klamath Reservation have a strong sense of cultural identity. They have also retained their unique language and many of their religious ceremonies, though much of their worship today is a mixture of traditional and Biblical religion.

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