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Location: Northeastern corner of California (northesat Siskiyou County & northern Modoc County)

Language: Shapwailutan family

1770 estimate:
500 (in California)
1910 Census: 20 (in California)

The Modoc may not be considered as California Indians, since their territory was as much in present-day Oregon as in California.  Their language and customs were closely related to the Klamath people, who lived in Oregon.  The Modoc did, however, occupy a part of California that is today known as Modoc County.  They also shared some customs with the Shasta to the west, and with the Achumawi to the south.

In California history, the Modoc are noted for their defense of their lands in 1872-73 when for several months they outwitted the American soldiers, who outnumbered them, by fighting from the lava caves and trenches.  The Modoc leader at that time, a chief named Kintpuash, was known as Captain Jack.


In California, the Modoc occupied land south to the Pit River, and east almost to Goose Lake.  The main settlements were near Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake. This area contains a lot of marsh lands,

The name Modoc may have come from Móatokni, meaning Southerners.  The people did not use this name for themselves, but called themselves maklaks, meaning the people.  To name specific groups of people, they used a description of where the group lived, such as Moatak maklaks, meaning the people who lived on the lake to the south (muat).

The leaders of Modoc villages probably inherited their position, the son of a leader replacing his father.


The Modoc had two types of houses.  During most of the year, they lived in brush houses.  These were made in an oval shape, from 12 to 25 feet long and about half that wide.  A frame of willow poles was covered with several layers of mats made from tule reeds. 

In the winter, the Modoc lived in an earth-covered lodge.  The floor was dug out several feet below ground level.  Roof beams were supported by posts inside, with willow poles forming the side walls.  Tule mats and brush were placed over the poles, as in the summer house, but then the entire structure was covered with a heavy layer of earth.  The earth  lodges were sometimes as big as 50 feet across, with the roof being 20 feet above the floor.  The smokehole in the roof was also the main door.  A ladder to climb down to the floor was made by cutting notches in a pole. 

Sweathouses used by the Modoc were small structures made of poles covered with mats.  Stones were heated in a fire outside, then brought into the sweathouse where water was poured on them, making steam.


Since there were few oak trees in Modoc territory, they did not use acorns as their main food like most California Indian groups.  The food that replaced the acorn for the Modoc was the wokas, a large yellow water lily that grew in the marshy areas.  The people went out in canoes to gather the seeds of this water lily, usually collecting the seed pods before the seeds were fully ripe.  The pods were then dried in the sun and the seeds pounded out.  There were several different names for the seeds, depending on how ripe they were and how they were prepared for eating.  Seeds gathered when they were fully ripe were called spokwas, and were considered the finest kind.  Some seeds were boiled into a thin mush.  The dried seeds could be stored for eating later in the year.

Deer meat and fish were important foods for the Modoc.  They did not have much salmon, but caught smaller fish in the lakes.  Ducks and other waterfowl were snared in large nets, held at the sides by several men and then dropped over the birds.


Shirts and leggings made from deerskins were worn by Modoc men.  The women's dress, also made of deerskin, was a full gown that hung from the shoulders. 

The tule reeds that grew in the marshes were used to make other articles of clothing.  Tule strands were twined together to make shoes, which were lined with grass.  These shoes were used in the winter, as they were warmer and more waterproof than moccasins made of deerskin.  Deerskin shoes were used in the summer, when people were walking longer distances.  Snowshoes were made by bending a small branch into a hoop shape, and stretching strips of hide across it.  For walking in marshy areas, the Modoc used a smaller version of the snowshoe.

Tule reeds were also used to make knee-high leggings.  For more warmth in cold weather, women wore a cape or blanket made from shredded tule or sagebrush bark over their shoulders.  Men wore a cap without a top, like an eye shade, made from tule reeds.  Porcupine tails were used as hairbrushes.  Infants' heads were wrapped in such a way as to flatten the forehead.


The tule reeds were used by the Modoc to make many of the things they needed.  In addition to tule mats, shoes, and clothing, they used the tule reeds to make baskets.  Two fibers from the tule were twisted into a string, which was used to form the frame of the basket.  Other tule fibers were twined in, making a rather soft basket.  Whereas other early California groups used a variety of materials in basketmaking, the Modoc relied almost entirely on tule reeds.  Their baskets were decorated with patterns in black or yellow from the leaves of cattail rushes, or with porcupine quills dyed yellow with moss.

The Modoc made canoes by digging out a fir log.  The canoes were about two feet wide, and from 12 to 30 feet long.  They were thin and lightweight, suited only for quiet lakes and marshes rather than rushing rivers.  The canoe paddles, about four or five feet long, were made of cedar wood.  Often two people paddled the canoe, one in the back and one in the middle.  The load was placed in the back, so that the front of the canoe rose out of the water.  The Modoc also used rafts made from bundles of tule reeds lashed together.  The rafts could carry a heavy weight, but moved very slowly in the marshes.

For pounding the wokas and other seeds, the Modoc used a stone tool called a muller.  This was a flat slab, usually of lava rock, with two fingers, or horns, sticking up from the base.  The woman using the muller held it with her thumbs pressed against the protruding horns, and stroked it back and forth to crack the shells of the seeds. 

For hunting, bows and arrows as well as spears and harpoons, with tips made of obsidian (volcanic glass), were used.  The hunter carried the arrows in a quiver made from a tule reed mat.  The string used to tie together the tule reeds was made from shreds of nettle bark.  For fishing, small dip nets on hoops and longer gill-net seines were made of string. 


Dentalium (tube-shaped mollusk) shells were used as money.  The hollow shells were strung on strings by size, the longer shells being worth more.  The shells came from the northwest coast, mostly from Vancouver Island, and were traded from one group to another, until they reached northern California.


Little is known of Modoc ceremonies.  They did celebrate the girls becoming adults with a dance.

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