The acorn harvest and the salmon run provided occasions for ceremony and celebration. Specific events included the World Renewal dances: the Jumping Dance, held in the spring (associated with the salmon run), and the Deerskin Dances, held in the fall (associated with the acorn harvest and the second salmon run). Both featured priestly rituals, displays of wealth, dancing, and singing.
No political organization or formal leadership existed in the three main clusters of villages, although wealthy men enjoyed a greater degree of influence. The Karuks regulated their community through shared values.
Culturally, the Karuks were very similar to the neighboring Yuroks and Hupas. In fact, they enjoyed especially close marriage and ceremonial ties with the Yurok. Their main values were industry, thrift, and the acquisition, mostly by hunting and gambling, of property such as dentalium shells, red woodpecker scalps, and large obsidian blades. These forms of wealth were important in and of themselves, not just for their purchasing power.
Woman doctors cured by sucking out the cause of a disease with the help of a pain, an object, recoverable at will, that she kept in her body. Other kinds of doctors of both sexes cured by using medicinal plants. Corpses were buried in a family plot, along with shell money and valuables. Clothing and tools were hung on a fence around the grave. After five days, the soul was said to ascend to a place in the sky (the relative happiness of the afterlife was said to depend on the level of a person's wealth). A dead person's name remained taboo until or unless given to a child.
Crimes were recognized against individuals only (not against society). As such they could be atoned for by making material restitution. Refusal to pay could lead to death. The Karuks considered sex to be an enemy of wealth and did not often engage in it except during the fall gathering expeditions. Sex and children outside of marriage were acceptable in this scheme: "Legitimacy," like almost everything else, had a price. Marriage was basically a financial transaction, as was divorce. A couple lived with the man's parents.
The Karuks observed many daily magical practices and taboos. They also underwent extensive ritualistic preparations for the hunt, including sweating, bathing, scarification, bleeding, smoking their weapons with herbs, fasting, and sexual continence. Games included gambling with a marked stick, shinny, cat's cradle, archery, darts, and the women's dice game.
Dwelling structures (family houses and sweat houses) were made of planks, preferably cedar. Family houses were rectangular and semisubterranean, with an outside stone-paved porch and a stone-lined firepit inside. Doors were small and low. Males from about three years of age slept, sweat, gambled, and passed the time in sweat houses, which women, except for shaman initiates, could not enter.
The Karuk diet consisted mostly of salmon, deer (caught in snares or by hunters wearing deer head masks), and acorns (as soup, mush, and bread). The people also hunted bear, elk, and small game. Meat and fish were usually roasted, although salmon and venison could be dried and stored. The only cultivated crop was tobacco. The following were never eaten: dog, coyote, wolf, fox, wildcat, gopher, mole, bat, eagle, hawk, vulture, crow, raven, owl, meadowlark, blue jay, snake, lizard, frog, caterpillar, and grasshopper.
To catch fish, Karuks stood on fishing platforms holding large dip nets (the platforms were privately owned but could be rented). They also used harpoons and gaffs. They cut planks with stone mauls and horn wedges. Wooden implements included seats, storage boxes, spoons for men (women used mussel shell spoons), and hand drills for making fire. Women wove vegetable fiber baskets, containers, cradles, and caps. Bows were made of yew wood, with sinew backings and strings. Meat and bulbs were roasted in an oven of hot stones.
Hides, usually from deer, and furs were the basic clothing materials. Women wore hides with the hair on to cover their upper bodies, and they wore a double apron of fringed buckskin. They also had three vertical lines tattooed on their chins. Men wore a buckskin breechclout or nothing at all. Both sexes wore buckskin moccasins with elkhide soles and perhaps leggings for rough traveling. Both sexes also wore basketry caps and ear and nose ornaments. They decorated their ceremonial clothing with fringe, shells, and pine nuts. Snowshoes were of hazelwood with iris cord netting and buckskin ties.
There was no war in a real sense, only retaliatory activity that might involve fellow villagers. Casualties were invariably light, and young women who may have been captured were usually returned at settlement time, when every injured party received full compensation. Weapons included yew bows, obsidian-tipped arrows, and elk hide or rod armor vests.
Contact with outsiders was largely avoided until 1850 and the great gold rush. At that time miners, vigilantes, soldiers, and assorted Anglos seized Karuk lands, burned their villages, and massacred their people. Hitherto unknown diseases also decimated their population. Many Karuk were removed to the Hoopa Valley Reservation.
Without a reservation of their own, many survivors drifted away from their traditional lands in search of work. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to culture-killing boarding schools. Some people did remain at home, however, and continued to live a lifestyle that included traditional subsistence and religious activities. Ceremonialism fell off after World War II but was reinvigorated beginning in the 1970s.