The Hupa celebrated annual World Renewal ceremonies during which shamans performed secret rites and dances such as the White Deerskin Dance and the Jumping Dance. This ceremony was held in specific locations for ten days in late summer or fall. It included a long narrative about Hupa history and the actions of the supernaturals. Wealthy families provided ceremonial regalia. The people also held other ceremonies for seasonal activities, such as the beginning of the salmon run. Two ceremonial divisions, northern and southern, came together in the ancient village of Takimildin, located in the heart of the Hoopa Valley.
Curing shamans, whose methods included sucking out illness-causing objects, were almost always women. They charged high fees, which were payable in advance but refundable if the cure failed. People also used family-owned medicines for more minor ailments. Hupas also believed that male sorcerers could find many ways in which to harm a person. They recognized many spirits and supernatural beings but gave them little ritual attention. They did observe numerous daily rituals and taboos and recognized the obligation to maintain a healthy mind-set.
The Hupa recognized no formal political leadership. Instead, people were ranked according to their wealth. The family was a basic unit, but several patrilineally related households formed a larger grouping or a village. The ten to fifteen Hupa villages acted together informally and only for activities like holding religious ceremonies or building communal fish weirs.
According to Hupa tradition, all customs were formed in an earlier, mythological period of the peoples' existence. One notable custom concerned social status, which was defined by inheritable material possessions such as albino deerskins, large obsidian blades, and headdresses decorated with redheaded woodpecker scalps. Money, such as shell currency, was slightly different from material wealth and could be used to pay for items such as a dowry, a shaman's fee, or an indemnity to an injured party. Wealth could theoretically be obtained through hard work, but in practice property was difficult to accumulate and there was little movement through class lines. The legal code stated that every wrong had to be compensated for, usually with money but occasionally with blood. Family and individual wealth and power affected the terms of redress.
When a Hupa died, the body was wrapped in deerskin and buried. Clothing and utensils were placed on top of a plank-lined grave marked with a board. Close relatives cut their hair as a sign of mourning. After five days, souls departed for a dank, dark underworld (the souls of shamans and singers were fortunate to inhabit a pleasant heaven in the sky).
Hupas observed a number of life cycle prohibitions and taboos as well as magic and religious observances. Babies remained in the cradle until they walked and were not formally named at least until age five. Children knew only mild discipline. At age eight or so a boy joined his father in the sweat lodge. Pubescent girls were considered unclean and remained secluded, although girls from wealthier families might have a party to mark the occasion. Girls married at fifteen or sixteen; boys slightly later. A feast and an exchange of gifts marked the occasion. Only rich men could afford more than one wife. Sex was generally avoided for a number of reasons, except during the late summer and fall family camping trips. In case of divorce, which was fairly easy to obtain, the bride price was returned if the couple was childless.
Most men and women worked hard and steadily, although time was set aside for diversions. Men played the hand game; women bet on the mussel shell toss. Other diversions included athletic contests, storytelling, and smoking at bedtime for men. The voice was the most important musical instrument, followed by wooden clappers, bone whistles, and hoof rattles.
For most of the year, Hupas lived in cedar-planked single-family houses built around a square hole. A stone-lined fire pit sat in the center of the house. Smoke escaped through a hole in the three-pitched roof. Earthen shelves next to the walls served as storage areas. Women and children slept in the family house; men slept in semisubterranean sweat houses, which they also used as clubhouses and workshops. People lived in roofless brush shelters during the autumn acorn-gathering expeditions.
Acorns and fish, especially salmon, were the staples. Women harvested and prepared the former, cooking it into mush or bread. Deer and elk were captured by stalking or driving them into a river and then pursuing them by canoe. Small game was also taken. Other fish included trout, sturgeon, and eel. Fish was sliced thin and smoke-dried for storage or broiled fresh. People also gathered a number of food plants, including berries, nuts, seeds, roots, and greens. They did not eat many birds, reptiles, amphibians (except turtles), insects, and larvae. Hupas rarely lacked for an adequate food supply.
The Hupas never fought together as a tribe. Even villages rarely united for war, which was generally a matter for individuals or families. Hupas kept their conflicts short, few and far between, with few casualties, except for a particularly harsh war with the Yokuts in the 1830s. Favored tactics included ambushes and surprise raids. Weapons included the bow and arrow, spears, stone knives, and rocks. Wooden or hide "armor" was sometimes worn for protection.
Little is known about Hupa pre-contact, although they are culturally related to the Yuroks and the Karuks to the north. They arrived in northern California in roughly 1000. Being fairly isolated, they had little contact with non-Natives until the midnineteenth century. There were few Spanish or Russian inroads or even American trappers. Even in 1849, the Hupas saw some miners but were spared the wholesale displacement experienced by other Natives.
After the 1849 gold rush, settlers flooded the region, but the Hupas held their ground. The construction of a fort in 1858 resulted primarily in some liaisons between soldiers and Hupa women. The government created the Hoopa Valley Reservation in 1864. Because of the relative lack of cataclysmic disruption and the location of a reservation in their traditional homeland, the Hupas were generally able to adjust slowly but steadily to their new situation. The period following World War II brought good jobs as lumberjacks and mill workers as well as the end of the traditional subsistence economy. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States took control of tribal funds and resources for use at the government's discretion.