American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


Title: Yurok man in canoe
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
"Yurok" is a Karuk word meaning "downstream" and refers to the tribe's location relative to the Karuk people. The Yuroks referred to themselves as Olekwo'l, or "Persons." Some Yurok villages were established as early as the fourteenth century and perhaps earlier. Traditionally, the Yurok lived in permanent villages along and near the mouth of the Klamath River, in northern California. Today, many live on several small rancherias in Humboldt County. The aboriginal Yurok population was roughly three thousand in the early nineteenth century. Yurok is an Algonquian language.

Similar to other northern California Indians, local Yurok groups practiced the World Renewal religion and the accompanying wealth-displaying white deerskin and jumping dances. Other ceremonies included the brush dance, kick dance, ghost dance, war dance, and peace dance. People who performed religious ceremonies were drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. In general, religious training was related to acquiring not spirits, as in regions to the north, but rather real items, such as dentalia or food.

The wealthiest man was generally the village leader. About 10 percent of the men made up an aristocracy known as peyerk, or "real men." Selected by elder sponsors for special training, including vision quests, they lived at higher elevations than most Yuroks, spoke in a more elaborate style, and acquired treasures such as albino deerskins, large obsidian knives, and costumes heavily decorated with shells and seeds. They also wore finer clothing, imported special food, ate with a different etiquette, hosted ceremonial gatherings, and occasionally spoke foreign languages. The peyerk occasionally gathered as a council to arbitrate disputes. "Real women" went through a similar training experience. Since children were considered a financial drain, "real women" and their husbands practiced family limitation by sexual abstinence.

Social status was a function of individual wealth, which was itself a major Yurok preoccupation. Only individuals owned land, although other resources might be owned as well by villages and descent groups. Poor people could voluntarily submit to the status of slave to acquire some measure of wealth. Imported dentalia shells were a major measure of wealth; they were engraved, decorated, and graded into standard measures for use as money. Other forms of wealth included large obsidian blades (also imported), pileated woodpecker scalps, and albino deerskins.

Via prayer and the elicitation of wrongdoing, women doctors cured by gaining control of pains, small inanimate, disease-causing objects within people. The misuse of curing power (sorcery) could cause individual death or group famine. Intertribal social and ceremonial relations with neighbors were frequent and friendly. Yurok villages often competed against each other in games. Unlike most offenses, certain sex crimes may have been considered crimes against the community.

The basic unit of society was a small group of patrilineally related males. Marriage was accompanied by lengthy haggling over the bride price. Most couples lived with the husband's family. Illegitimacy and adultery, being crimes against property, were considered serious. Corpses were removed from the home through the roof and buried in a family plot. If a married person died, the spouse guarded the grave until the soul's departure for the afterworld several days after death.

The Yuroks' first contact with non-Natives came with Spanish expeditions around 1775. The first known contact was among Hudson's Bay Company trappers and traders in 1827. However, the Yuroks remained fairly isolated until about 1850, when a seaport was created in Yurok territory to make travel to the gold fields more accessible. The rush of settlers after 1848 led to a wholesale slaughter and dispossession of the Yuroks. An 1851 treaty that would have established a large Yurok reservation was defeated by non-Indian interests. Shortly after the first white settlement was founded, Yuroks were working there as bottom-level wage laborers.

President Franklin Pierce established the Klamath River Reservation in the Yurok territory in 1855, and Congress authorized the Hoopa Valley Reservation in 1864. In 1891, the Klamath River Reservation was joined to the Hoopa Reservation in an extension now called the Yurok Reservation. This tract of land consisted of 58,168 acres in 1891, but allotment and the sale of "surplus" land, primarily to Anglo timber companies, reduced this total to about 6,800 acres. Three communal allotments became the rancherias of Big Lagoon, Trinidad, and Resighini.

From the midnineteenth century into the twentieth, many Yuroks worked in salmon canneries. Yuroks formed the Yurok Tribal Organization in the 1930s. Indian Shakerism was introduced in 1927, and some Yuroks joined the Assembly of God in the 1950s and 1960s. In a landmark 1988 case, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to protect the sacred sites of Yurok and other Indians from government road building. Also in 1988, the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act partly resolved a long-standing dispute over timber revenues and fishing rights.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer