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ETHNONYMS: Clamath, Lutuami, Maklaks


Identification. The Klamath were an American Indian group who lived in southern Oregon and northern California. Although the Klamath no longer exist as a distinct cultural entity, descendants of the Klamath who are identified as Ethnically Klamath still live in their aboriginal territory. During the reservation period from 1864 to 1954 the Klamath were closely tied to the Modoc and the Yahuskin Paiute, with the latter two groups being largely assimilated into the Klamath during this period. The Klamath name for themselves is "Maklaks," meaning "people" or "community."

Location. As far can be determined, the Klamath had lived for some time before contact in what is today southern Oregon and northern California. The Modoc were situated mostly in northern California. Prior to the reservation period, the Klamath and Modoc claimed over 20 million acres of land in this region. The Klamath Reservation was located in Klamath County, Oregon, at about 121° to 122° W and 42° to 43° N. This region, with elevations over four thousand feet, is characterized by streams and marshes, and long, snowy winters. Fish, mussels, and water fowl were abundant. Culturally, this area is on the boundaries of the Great Basin, Plateau, and California regions. The Klamath displayed a number of cultural features typical of the aboriginal Plateau groups and, in later times, of the Northwest Coast region. The Modoc displayed some cultural features of northern California groups.

Demography. Estimates in the late 1700s placed the number of Klamath at from 400 to 1,000. In 1848 there were about 1,000. In 1930, 2,034 Klamath and Modocs were counted, and in 1958, shortly after the Klamath Reservation was terminated, the Klamath numbered 2,133. Since they were mixed with other Indian groups and Whites after being placed on the reservation, accurate population counts are not possible.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Klamath and the Modoc spoke dialects of the Lutuami language, which is classified in the Klamath-Sahaptin family of Penutian languages. There are probably no more than a few speakers of Klamath alive today.

History and Cultural Relations

The Klamath and Modoc believe that they entered the Southern Oregon region as one people, later separating as the Modoc settled farther to the south. That they spoke dialects of the same language provides some support for this belief. The earliest influences of European society were indirect, Primarily through trade relations with Northern Great Basin groups who had obtained horses and other goods from Plains tribes. Sustained contact began in 1826, and the Klamath were quickly drawn into a trading network with Whites and other Indian groups at The Dalles and other trading centers. Unlike many other groups, the Klamath did not suffer from European-introduced epidemic diseases nor from hostilities with White settlers.

In 1864 the Klamath entered into a treaty with the Federal government, ceding their aboriginal land in return for the over one-million-acre Klamath Reservation, where they were joined by the Modoc and Yahuskin Paiute. In 1866 the Klamath Agency was established, leading to federal government control of Klamath life that was to continue until termination in 1954. Beginning in 1895, reservation land began to be allotted to individual Klamath and later to Modocs who Returned from Oklahoma where they had been sent following their defeat by the federal government in the war of 1872-1873.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Klamath society underwent profound economic and political changes through contacts with neighboring Whites and the policies of the various federal agents who administered the reservation. During this same period, they were involved in a series of land claims and natural resource suits with the federal and state governments and local land companies. In August 1954 a majority of the Klamath agreed to a federal proposal to end federal oversight and administration of the reservation. This led to serious problems as federal and Bureau of Indian Affairs programs were ended, individual Klamath were awarded large cash payments, and many individuals lost a sense of Klamath identity. Beginning in 1964, the Klamath were involved in a series of legal battles about old land claims and the sale of the reservation land and were eventually awarded over $20 Million in settlements. Efforts to reverse termination and regain federal recognition as an Indian tribe have so far been unsuccessful.


Prior to the reservation period, the Klamath lived in settled villages during the cold, snowy winter months. These villages were often located along streams or in sheltered spots and contained anywhere from a few to dozens of semisubterranean earthlodges. Major villages were located at Klamath Lake, Klamath Marsh, and on the Williamson and Sprague rivers. In the spring and summer they generally moved to fishing spots and lived in mat-covered lodges. Once on the Reservation, the population shifted to a number of towns: Chiloquin, Modoc Point, and Klamath Agency at the Southern end and Sprague River and Beatty at the northern end. Over time, many Klamath also settled off the reservation, though near it, in search of jobs, schools, and stores. Since many Whites also settled in the reservation towns, the Klamath were usually a minority in the communities where they lived.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Aboriginally, the Klamath were fishers, gatherers, and hunters. Fish and pond lily seeds (wokas ), which were ground into flour, were the dietary staples. Fruit, berries, and roots were gathered and deer, antelope, and waterfowl hunted. A surplus was obtained and stored in communal pits or in the earthlodges for consumption in the winter months. Once on the reservation and under agency control, the economy changed markedly. Although fishing, gathering, and hunting continued, the Klamath entered the regional cash economy as their economic base diversified. Stock raising became an important activity, with cattle raised for beef and for sale, and horses, mules, and pigs also raised. Attempts to introduce farming were less than successful and eventually focused on growing hay to feed the livestock. Rich in timberlands, the Klamath early on entered the logging industry and cut and hauled timber for their own use and for sale to Whites. Since federal rules forbade the cutting of live trees on the reservation, the Klamath and their customers developed schemes to circumvent this restriction. Hauling of freight, day labor, and work in the service sector also provided income during the reservation period. As more and more Klamath moved off the reservation, day labor, particularly as farm workers, became more important.

Industrial Arts. The Klamath made use of the variety of raw materials in their relatively rich environment. Woodworking was relatively unimportant, with the dugout canoes fashioned largely through burning. Mats from tule and swamp grass were used for inner and outer earthlodge covers and as bedding. Basketry was highly developed and was the source of most household utensils. Clothing, especially for the wealthy, was sewn from hides. The bow and arrow was used for hunting, supplemented by clubs, spears, and body armor for warfare.

Trade. After contact in 1826 the Klamath were active participants in the trade network with other Indian groups and Whites. They traded slaves taken from California groups and wokas for horses, blankets, buffalo skins, and dried salmon mainly with groups from the Northwest Coast and Plateau. After settlement on the reservation, trade gave way to involvement in the regional cash economy.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally, men hunted, women gathered, and both participated in fishing. Under the agency system, much of the new work went to men, leaving mostly domestic chores and traditional activities to the women.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms followed the Hawaiian system.

Marriage. Marriage was by gift exchange, with the bride's family generally giving more than the groom's. Since marriage to kin was forbidden, village exogamy predominated, with a slight tendency toward marriage within the tribelet. Wealthy men might take more than one wife, with sororal polygyny and the levirate present. Postmarital residence was generally patrilocal, though matrilocal residence did occur, particularly when the groom was poor. Divorce was easy and common.

Domestic Unit. Earthlodges housed a number of nuclear families, with the residents all related to one another. In addition, most residents of a village were kin.

Socialization. Daughters of chiefs and other wealthy Families were afforded a puberty dance at first menstruation. Other girls followed the same food taboos and other restrictions, but did not dance in public. Boys at puberty were sent on a five-day dream quest.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The winter village was the basic Social unit, with the same families returning to their earthlodges each year. Although true social classes were absent, a distinction was made between the wealthy and the remainder of the population and slaves were kept. Wealth was symbolized by the possession of horses, slaves, beads, archers' equipment, canoes, furs, hides, large lodges, and other material items. In 1864 the slaves were freed, and many returned to their native groups.

Political Organization. There were five or six geographical subdivisions or tribelets of the Klamath. The major tribelets were those living on Klamath Marsh and the middle Williamson River. Other tribelets were located near Agency Lake, Pelican Bay, Klamath Falls, and the Sprague River Valley. These divisions disappeared after settlement on the Reservation. Chieftainship was weakly developed, with some Villages having chiefs and others having none. Chiefs were men who had acquired prestige through warfare or wealth, were able public speakers and had some spirit experiences. The intensification of trade before placement on the reservation led a few men to acquire much wealth and increase their authority. During the reservation period, the Klamath had a general council, though they were largely under the control of the succession of agents at Klamath Agency.

Social Control and Conflict. The Klamath warred with other groups. All Klamath tribelets fought together, perhaps under the direction of a principal chief. War was motivated by plunder, a desire for slaves, and for revenge. Traditional enemies included the Shasta, Northern Paiute, Takelma, Kalapuya, and Pit River groups. Relations were close with the Modoc and peaceful with the Molala and Wishram-Wasco. Blood feuds between tribelets were not uncommon and were often precipitated by the murder of a man living with a wife of another tribelet. The feuds were usually ended by a negotiated payment of compensation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Every Klamath sought spiritual power in vision quests, which took place at life crises such as puberty and mourning. The spirits were poorly defined, but primarily took the form of nature spirits or anthropomorphic beings. Klamath mythology was dominated by the culture hero Kemukemps, a trickster figure who had created men and women.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans enjoyed considerable prestige and authority, often more than did chiefs. Shamans were people who had acquired more spiritual power than had others. Shamanistic performances, during which the shamans became possessed, were the main forms of Klamath ceremonialism. These performances were held in the winter and lasted five days and nights. The shamans' services could be invoked at any time during the year for such purposes as prophecy, divination, or weather control, in addition to curative funtions.

Arts. The Klamath made a flute, three types of rattles, and a hand drum. Basketry was decorated with geometric designs.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased were cremated, and their possessions and valuables given by others in their honor burned with the body. Mourning was a personal matter with a mourning period and behavioral restrictions without public ceremony.


Ray, Verne F. (1963). Primitive Pragmatists: The Modoc Indians of Northern California. American Ethnological Society Monograph no. 38. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Spier, Leslie (1930). Klamath Ethnography. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 30. Berkeley.

Stern, Theodore (1965). The Klamath Tribe: A People and Their Reservation. American Ethnological Society Monograph no. 41. Seattle: University of Washington Press.


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Klamath (klăm´əth), Native North Americans who in the 19th cent. lived in SW Oregon. They speak a language of the Sahaptin-Chinook branch of the Penutian linguistic stock (see Native American languages) and are related to the Modoc people. The material for the first description of the Klamath was collected by Peter Skene Ogden, who visited them in 1829 and opened trade relations. They subsisted by hunting, fishing, and collecting roots and wokas, or water-lily seeds. The Klamath were peaceful toward American settlers but not toward the Native Americans of N California. They raided those tribes periodically and carried off women and children, keeping their captives as slaves or selling them to other Native Americans. By the treaty of 1864 with the United States, the practice of slavery was abolished and their land NE of Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon was set aside as the Klamath Reservation. Today they are mostly farmers. In 1990 there were 3,100 Klamath in the United States.

See L. Spier, Klamath Ethnography (1930); T. Stern, The Klamath Tribe (1965, repr. 1988).

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Klamath, mountain range, part of Pacific Coast Ranges extending c.240 mi (368 km) from SW Oregon to NW California. The Klamath Mts. are part of numerous national forest and wildlife preserves and contain scenic portions of the Klamath River, rising in Upper Klamath Lake, and the Sacramento River. The highest point is Mt. Eddy (9,038 ft/2,755 m). Hiking and game hunting are popular activities along the mountain range. Tourism, fishing, and lumber industries are chief sources of income for many of the towns in the mountain region, such as Klamath Falls.