The Yurok Indians are enrolled in seven different federally recognized tribes today, and are the largest tribe in the state of California. Today they live on the Yurok Indian Reservation, on several rancherías, including the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, throughout Humboldt County, and beyond.
Traditionally, the Yurok lived in permanent villages along the Klamath River in northwest California near the Pacific Coast. Some of their villages date back to the 14th century.
They fished for salmon along rivers, gathered ocean fish and shellfish, hunted game, and gathered plants. Whale meat was prized above others, but the Yuroks did not hunt whales. Instead, they waited until a dead whale washed up onto the beach or a place near the beach and dried the flesh.
The major currency of the Yurok nations was the dentalium shell. Alfred L. Kroeber wrote of the Yurok perception of the shell:
“Since the direction of these sources is ‘downstream’ to them, they speak in their traditions of the shells living at the downstream and upstream ends of the world, where strange but enviable peoples live who suck the flesh of univalves.”
Their name for themselves is Olekwo’l meaning “Persons.” Yurok means “downriver people” in the neighboring Karuk language (also called yuh’ára, or yurúkvaarar in Karuk).
The Yurok’s first contact with non-Natives was when Spanish explorers entered their territory in 1775.
Fur traders and trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company came in 1827.
Following encounters with white settlers moving into their aboriginal lands during a gold rush in 1850, the Yurok were faced with disease and massacres that reduced their population by 75%.
In 1855, following the Klamath and Salmon River War, the Lower Klamath River Indian Reservation was created by executive order. The Reservation boundaries included a portion of the Yurok’s aboriginal territory and most of the Yurok villages.
As a result, the Yurok people were not forcibly removed from their traditional homelands. They continue to live in these same villages today.
The Yuroks, as late as the 1970s, asserted that there were minor variations in dialect between men and women, between families (especially rich versus poor), and among Yurok villages. In 1917, when Yurok was still commonly spoken, Kroeber recognized three separate regionally specific dialects within Yurok territory.
Between twenty and one hundred people speak the Yurok language today.
The language is passed on through master-apprentice teams and through singing. Language classes have been offered through Humboldt State University and through annual language immersion camps.
An unusual feature of the language is that certain nouns change depending upon whether there is one, two, or three of the object. For instance, one human being would be ko:ra’ or ko’r, two human beings would be ni’iyel, and three human beings would be nahkseyt.
Alfred L. Kroeber put the 1770 population of the Yurok at 2500. Sherburne F. Cook initially agreed, but later raised this estimate to 3100.
By 1870, the Yurok population had declined to 1350. By 1910 it was reported as 668 or 700.
As of 1970, it was reported that full-blood Yuroks were very few, though persons of direct ancestry numbered between three thousand and forty-five hundred.
The United States Census for the year 2000 indicates that there were 4413 Yurok living in California, combining those of one tribal descent and those with ancestors of several different tribes and groups.
There were 5,793 Yurok living throughout the United States. The Yurok Indian Reservation is California’s largest tribe, with almost 6000 members.
The few archaeological investigations in the Yurok area indicate Yurok presence there in late prehistoric times.
There was no known historic contact between the Yurok and Europeans prior to 1775, when they were visited by the Spanish.
Fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company ventured into the Yurok area in 1827, and gold rush prospectors entered the lower Klamath River area in 1850-1851. The first Anglo-European settlement began around 1852.
There was considerable violence between the Yurok and the gold seekers during this era. After 1855, however, the Yurok were protected by military and government officials in the area.
Prior to the advent of Europeans, the Yurok interacted primarily with the Hupa and the Karok, who shared a common northwestern California coast lifestyle.
On their periphery, there were Contacts with other groups, including the Wiyot, Chilula, Chimariko, Shasta, Tututni, Chetco, and Tolowa.
There were extensive kinship and economic ties between the Yurok and their neighbors, yet the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok were fiercely territorial. They would visit one another’s villages for ceremonies, but were generally self-sufficient within their territories, except for obsidian and dentalium shell that were obtained through trade.
The Yurok were obsessed with amassing and holding wealth and often sued or demanded tribute from other Yuroks or their neighbors for a variety of infractions.
Feuds were fought between Yurok villages, and the Yuroks waged wars, albeit small-scale ones, with the Hupa, Chilula, and Tolowa.
Tribute was often extracted by the Yurok, but there was also a complex system of compensation for damages inflicted in feuds between Yurok families or villages. Compensation was usually in the form of strings of dentalium shell used by the Yurok as a measure of currency and wealth.
All Yurok settlements were either on the Klamath River, up to about thirty miles inland, and extending about twenty-five miles down the seacoast from the mouth of the Klamath.
Kroeber described Yurok habitation as occurring in villages, the latter numbering about fifty-four. Most were on high terraces of the Klamath, though others were at lower elevations near the mouth of the river (for example, from elevations of about two hundred feet to twenty feet above sea level).
The wood plank houses within Yurok villages were named according to their topographic location, size, ceremonial frontage, or position.
Though there was no formal village plan, these villages, with their typical square houses, were usually tightly clustered.
Sweat houses were placed both within the residential area and on its periphery.
Although few data exist on the population of these villages, there is an 1852 census, which indicates a range of two to thirty houses per village, though seventeen villages (of the twenty-three recorded in that year) had seven or eight houses or fewer.
Yurok villages held communal property, such as acorn groves, or claimed rights to Certain waters for whaling. There were distinct boundaries between the properties held by one village and those of an adjacent Yurok village.
Villages functioned as units in warfare or feuds and would also host ceremonies, providing the regalia and food for guests.
Yurok Division of Labor
Men traditionally were the hunters, salmon fishers, and woodworkers. Fathers trained their sons to be hunters and warriors.
Women gathered shellfish and plant foods and used twined burden baskets for gathering firewood. Daughters were taught by their mothers to be diligent housewives.
Shamans could be either men or women, but were usually women.
Women usually functioned as “doctors,” or shamans. They relieved “pain” for high fees; unsuccessful shamans were not killed as they were in some other California Indian groups. True to Yurok law, they were, however, liable for several forms of compensation if the patient died or remained ill.
Women “doctors,” or shamans, smoked pipes as part of curing rituals, which also involved sucking out the patient’s pain.
Disease was caused by breaking taboos or Ceremonial regulations. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, the sick person “confessed” wrongdoings to the doctor, followed by positive prayer as part of the cure.
Among the Yurok were also formulists, usually old men who could recite formulae for various events, such as releasing a person from corpse contamination. The Yurok also believed in sorcerers who caused various evil occurrences.
Children collected acorns, roots, edible berries, and wild potatoes. Children were also taught to be “merry and alert.”
Rich men manufactured ceremonial regalia, and some men specialized in boat making.
Slavery existed among the Yurok, though it was not an important institution; men became slaves largely through indebtedness.
Marriage, Family and Village Organization
Kroeber notes that the Yurok married “whom and where they pleased.”
In the small Yurok villages, however, exogamy (marriage outside their village) was a necessity, but endogamy (marriage to others within the village) was common in the larger villages.
Social status of the married couple depended on the amount paid for the bride; men of wealth paid great sums, enhancing their rank in the community as well as that of their children.
Whether the man was rich or poor, Kroeber relates, “the formality of payment was indispensable to a Marriage.”
In the 1850s, most Yurok married couples lived with the husband’s family, with their children having primary affiliation with this house (a “full marriage” in Yurok terms).
A much smaller number of couples maintained permanent Residence with the wife’s family, with the children subsequently linked to that family (to the Yurok, a “half marriage”).
Divorce could be initiated by either party, but if the man was the instigator, he had to refund the payment made for his wife. If the woman was the initiator, her kin would have to compensate the husband.
If the woman wanted to take any children from the marriage, the husband had to be compensated. Sterility on the part of the woman was the most frequent ground for divorce.
A man’s estate went largely to his sons, though the daughters were expected to have a certain share. Additionally, male relatives expected to receive some portion of the estate.
Yurok society was socially stratified. Persons of wealth, or “aristocrats,” were clearly distinguished from “commoners” and the “poor.”
The aristocrats wore clothing of high style, performed most religious functions, and had a distinctive manner of speech, said to be “rich in its expressiveness.”
They also owned heirlooms, such as fifteen-inch obsidian bifaces and albino deerskins. Their wealth enabled them to hold dances, providing regalia and food.
Other aristocratic “treasure” included many strings of dentalium shell as well as woodpecker scalps.
Although the basic political unit was probably the village, Kroeber reported no sense of Community and no encompassing political entity. Only kinship ties at times united some people in separate villages.
There were no chiefs or leaders, although a man could sometimes gain importance through great wealth.
Since there was no political organization, there existed no central authority. Nevertheless, the Yurok had a series of eleven principles, or “laws,” enumerated by Kroeber.
The individual had all rights, claims, and privileges; if someone carried out a violent act, there was an elaborate network of compensation claims that could be applied, for example, to an act of revenge.
Indeed, the bulk of Yurok law involves the various levels of liability related to any offense. The concept of full compensation involved negotiation and litigation and thus served as the major factor of social control in Yurok life.
Disputes could arise among individuals over fishing rights, boundaries of territories, and adultery. So-called warfare involved feuds between large groups of kinsmen in Yurok villages.
Raids and retaliation for such raids took place between the Yurok and their neighbors, such as the Hupa.
After raids, however, compensation—settlement for damages that occurred—was always required.
Towns were usually inhabited by groups of related individuals and their families. Subsistence areas, such as fishing spots or acorn groves, could be owned by the town, by a group of men, or by an individual.
Well-defined territorial boundaries existed between the Yurok and their neighbors, though some areas were open to all peoples or were neutral areas, and some were sacred zones.
In 1875, nearly all of Yurok territory was placed in Humboldt County; today the Hoopa Valley reservations total more than eighty-seven thousand acres.
Kroeber thought that patrilineal kin groups existed among the Yurok, but were undesignated and unrecognized by them. Kinspeople were spread through Yurok towns and never organized as circumscribed groups such as clans or tribes.
Bilateral kinship must have also been present, so that, in Kroeber’s words, “a definite unit of kinsmen acting as a group capable of constituted social action did not exist.”
Descent groups were traced according to the name of its house site in a particular town, and by the late 1960s, Yurok descent groups were labeled as “families.”
A “house group,” as precontact Yurok descent entities might be called, owned rights to certain land, houses, and ceremonial regalia.
Yurok dances expressed their relligious beliefs. The motive of such dances was to renew or maintain the world, beginning with the reciting of long formulae, after which a dance ensued.
Dances were of various lengths, but could last ten or more days.
Each dance had a strict style of regalia, and the wealthy would display their treasures.
There were two main kinds of dances: the White Deerskin Dance and the Jumping Dance. The latter usually followed the White Deerskin Dance, and the ceremonies related to the dances intensified as each day passed.
A Deerskin Dance also marked the most famous ceremony of the Yurok, the building of a salmon dam at Kepel in early autumn. This preceded the Yurok’s first salmon ceremony, held at a small village near the mouth of the Klamath River each April.
After days of recitation by a formulist, a salmon was cooked and ritually consumed, thus signifying the opening of the fishing season for upstream Yurok villages.
Only men could dance in Yurok ceremonies, and some served as singers who constantly composed new songs during the dances.
In addition to the dances noted above, the Yurok also held “brush dances,” apparently designed to cure a sick child, but also held when younger men in the village desired a holiday.
The other dances were once held annually but later took place only in alternate years.
The last first salmon ceremony took place around 1865. The other dances have not been performed in Yurok territory since 1939, although Pilling has described a revival of Yurok ceremonialism in the 1970s.
Subsistence tasks involved fishing, hunting, and gathering. Salmon was certainly the most important food source. Using nets, harpoons, weirs, and specially built platforms, the Yurok obtained large numbers of salmon in the spring and autumn runs.
Yurok families often had a ton of dried salmon hanging from the house rafters. They also stored the dried salmon in baskets, separating each layer of fish with aromatic tree leaves; they believed the leaves “kept out the moths” (moth larvae would have eaten the fish), although the leaves may have added flavor to the dried fish.
Other fish obtained by the Yurok included eels and sturgeon. They also hunted sea lions and prized the meat from stranded whales.
Shellfish were collected, as were wild grass seeds, bulbs, and water lilies. Salt was extracted from seaweed. Deer were hunted with the use of dogs and were usually snared rather than shot.
Acorns were collected in the fall from groves usually owned by the village, but sometimes individually owned; some oak groves away from the river or between Yurok villages were said to be open to everybody.
Specific rights were held for certain fishing spots, and conflict often erupted if a spot was used without authorization or if a new fishing locale was established downstream. These were time-honored rights, often inherited within family groups.
The Yurok were skilled workers of redwood for house planks, boats, paddles, storage boxes, and hunting and fishing devices. Basket weaving was also a major craft, with basketry items used as baby carriers, storage containers, and mush-cooking vessels.
Surviving obsidian tools and salmon-butchering knives of flint also attest to their skills in chipping stone. Shells were strung on long cords to serve as currency.
There seems to have been little craft specialization, aside from some men who traditionally made boats.
Obsidian did not occur within Yurok territory and had to be obtained from Medicine Lake, where it was quarried by the Achumawi and then traded through the Shasta and Karok before reaching the Yurok.
Given the role of large obsidian bifaces in Yurok ceremony, this was a vital trade item.
Additionally, dentalium shell, prized as Yurok currency, was traded down the Pacific coast from deep-water beds at the north end of Vancouver Island.
The Yurok traded redwood boats of their manufacture to the Hupa, Tolowa, and Wiyot.
Yurok Tribes Today
Today Yurok people are enrolled in seven federally recognized tribes:
- Big Lagoon Rancheria
- Blue Lake Rancheria
- Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria
- Elk Valley Rancheria
- Resighini Rancheria
- Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation
- Yurok Indian Reservation
The following is a press release issued by the Yurok Tribe:
The Yurok Tribe filed in federal court a RICO case against the pharmaceutical giants that are alleged to be responsible for the surging opioid epidemic in the United States and on the Yurok Reservation.