CW múwatʰwas ‘Modocs’ is Klamath for ‘Pit River Indians’

The 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary of Chinuk Wawa is our source for the word múwatʰwas ‘Modocs’.

That’s a tribal group traditionally living south of the Klamaths, on the Oregon-California border.


(Image credit: Pit River Tribe)

The dictionary gives an etymology mo•wat’a•k, said to be the Modocs’ own name for Tule Lake and literally meaning ‘in the extreme south’ — although it’s “the center of their traditional homeland”.

This rare word múwatʰwas sprang to mind when I was researching in the 1963 Barker dictionary of the Klamath language.

That’s where I saw this entry:

moˑwat̲waˑs : /moˑwatwaˑs/ “Home-(in)-the-South” (place name and tribal name: the Pit River Indians)

Their website tells us the Pit River Indians nowadays include the XL Ranch, Montgomery Creek, Roaring Creek, Big Bend, Burney, Lookout, and Likely Rancherias. Their own traditional tribal and language names (unrelated to Klamath-Modoc) include Atsugewi, Achomawi, Hewisedawi, Aporige, Atwamsini, Madesi, Itsatawi, Illmawi, and Hammawi.

This moˑwatwaˑs is a much more exact match for the Chinuk Wawa word.

Makes sense to me that a Klamath (and Modoc, as those folks spoke essentially the same language) word for folks with a ‘home in the south’ refers to tribes farther south, in northern California.

Further identification with the Pit River Indians occurs in this Klamath term using the same noun stem:

moˑwat̲waˑsal̲tnd̲k : /moˑwatwaˑsaltantk/ “Pit-Rivered-On” (basket design; see Spier (1930), p. 192, 17k)

Other Klamath items seeming to include the root for ‘south; south wind’ are these:

moˑwa̲ 7Sv blow from the south; south

moˑwat̲ : /moˑwat/ south

moˑwat̲\ʼaˑkʼkniˑ : /moˑwatʼaˑkkniˑ/ Modoc(s)

So the Modocs are the ‘southern’ speakers of the Klamath language, but the Pit Rivers are the people with their ‘home in the south’.

Seems understandable to me that even SW Oregon Native people, after the Trail of Tears to the newly established multicultural Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, could’ve had a wee bit of confusion between Pit Rivers and Modocs.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?