Return to Modoc page


Social Organization

Return to Mount Shasta home page

A foraging people, the Modoc inhabited permanent winter settlements, and made seasonal rounds in search of food during the rest of the year. Villages "owned" favorite hunting, fishing and gathering places (Stern 454).

Modoc leaders called laġi were heads of extended families whose members provided the lagi with foodstuffs, which he later "redistributed to visitors and the needy" (Stern 454). Leaders were successful hunters and warriors, and good at games and gambling; they were respected for their wisdom, good judgment and oratory skills. The successes of the leaders were "often attributed to the aid of supernatural allies," and as a result, shaman often became influential leaders (Stern 453-454). The responsibilities of the leaders included: urging others to be respectful of each other and to avoid arguing, and they also provided lectures on morality to children (Stern 455).

Winema Riddle from the National Archives
Winema or Toby Riddle, a Modoc, standing between an agent and her husband Frank (on her left) with four Modoc women in front, 1873
Photographed by Eadweard Muybridge from the National Archives and Records Administration

Modoc society was stratified with the leading (wealthy) families at the apex. Marriage alliances were arranged between the leading families, consolidating wealth and power. Other members of "society ranged downward to the poor and ne'er-do-well" and slaves, which were women and children captured from other tribes, principally the Achumawi and Atsugewi (Stern 454- 455).

The Modoc conducted warfare to fend off raids, "to avenge past losses, or as ventures to secure booty" (Stern 456). Warriors wore armor made of serviceberry rods and helmets constructed of elk hide. Weapons included obsidian daggers, bow and arrows, and spears (Stern 456).

Pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum periods were times of dietary and hunting taboos. Childbirth took place in a wickiup attended by a midwife or shaman if difficulty was encountered. Babies were not named until they were a year old.

At puberty, girls were secluded in a wickiup for five days, attended only by their grandmothers. During this period of isolation, the girls observed dietary restrictions. Resting during the day and dancing at night, girls avoided sleeping and the fatal risk of dreaming about thunder. Most women observed menstrual taboos, as menstruating women were considered a danger to both themselves and others, especially hunters and the sick (Stern 457).

Marriages were arranged and accompanied by ceremonial visits and gift giving between the families. The newly married couple usually lived with the woman's family until they produced several children, at which time the family moved closer to the husband's family and constructed their own lodge (Stern 458).

The Modoc deceased were cremated after the bodies were washed, dressed in their finest clothes and wrapped in a tule mat.

Among the Modoc, the corpse, once prepared, was borne headfirst out the hatchway and carried to the cremation grounds. Their neighbors and friends had gathered wood for the funeral pyre, on which the body was laid with its head toward the west, the direction of the afterworld. (Stern 458)
The deceased's lodge was dismantled and fumigated by burning juniper, sage or cedar. The name of the deceased was not spoken until after a mourning ceremony had been performed to remember those who had died since the previous ceremony. Widows cropped their hair and covered their heads with pitch and charcoal; they also observed dietary taboos and stayed in the mourner's sweathouse for five days. After one year, the widow took a final purifying sweatbath, but she was only able remove the pitch when she remarried, two or more years after the death of a husband. Restrictions for widowers were slightly less stringent than those for widows (Stern 458).


Geology ~ Environment ~ Native Americans ~ Folklore ~ History ~ Art ~ Literature
Recreation ~ Maps ~ Mount Shasta Collection ~ Bibliography ~ Lesson Plans ~ About Project