Yurok is an Algonquian language. The Yurok Tribe is California’s largest Indian Tribe with nearly 5,000 enrolled members. The Yurok Indians are also known historically as the Pohlik-la, Ner-er-er, Petch-ik-lah and Klamath River Indians.
Yurok Indians. Signifying “downstream” in the language of the neighboring Karok. The Yurok referred to themselves as Olekwo’l, or “persons.”
Official Website: http://www.yuroktribe.org
Population: The aboriginal Yurok population was roughly 3,000 (early nineteenth century). In 1990, 1,819 Indians, not all of them Yurok, lived on four Yurok reservations. Other Yurok lived off-reservation. The official Yurok enrollment in 1991 was about 3,500.
History Some Yurok villages were established as early as the fourteenth century and perhaps earlier. Their 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 Yurok 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 Yurok.
As white explorers, gold-miners and settlers came to this region, the Yurok people lost more than three-fourths of their population through fatal contact with European diseases and unprovoked massacres by vigilantes.
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.
The Yurok people agreed to sign a “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” with representatives of the President of the United States in 1851, however, the US Senate failed to ratify the treaty.
In 1855, a group of “vigilante” Indians (who were known as Red Cap Indians) initiated a revolt against settlers. The Red Cap Indians were believed to be a mix of tribal groups who were fighting settlers.
The Red Cap War nearly brought a halt to the non-Indians settlement effort. The government was able to suppress the Red Cap Indians and regained control over the upper Yurok Reservation.
President Franklin Pierce established the Klamath River Reservation in Yurok Territory by Executive Order in 1855.
Yurok people were immediately confined to the area. The Reservation was considerably smaller than the Yurok original ancestral territory.
This presented a hardship for Yurok families who traditionally lived in villages along the Klamath River and northern Pacific coastline. When Fort Terwer was established many Yurok families were relocated and forced to learn farming and the English language.
In January 1862, the Fort was washed away by flood waters, along with the Indian agency at Wau-kell flat. Several Yurok people were relocated to the newly established Reservation in Smith River that same year. However, the Smith River Reservation was closed in July 1867.
Once the Hoopa Valley Reservation was established many Yurok people were sent to live there, as were the Mad River, Eel River and Tolowa Indians. In the years following the opening of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, several squatters on the Yurok Reservation continued to farm and fish in the Klamath River.
The government’s response was to evict squatters and use military force. Many squatters did not vacate and waited for military intervention, which was slow to come. In the interim, the squatters pursued other avenues to acquire Yurok lands.
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 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.
Religion: 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 sacred sites of Yurok and other Indians from government road building.
With other northern California Indians, local Yurok groups practiced the World Renewal religion and the accompanying wealth-displaying white deerskin and jumping dances.
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.
Ceremonies: The Yurok traditional ceremonies include the Deerskin Dance, Doctor Dance, Jump Dance, Brush Dance, Kick Dance, Ghost Dance, War Dance, Peace Dance, Flower Dance, Boat Dance, and others.
The canoe is also very important to the White Deerskin Dance, a ceremony recently rejuvenated. The canoes are used to transport dancers and ceremonial people.
The traditional money used by Yurok people is terk-term (dentalia shell), which is a shell harvested from the ocean. The dentalia used on necklaces are most often used in traditional ceremonies, such as the u pyue-wes (White Deerskin Dance), woo-neek-we-ley-goo (Jump Dance) and mey-lee (Brush Dance).
It was standard years ago, to use dentalia to settle debts, pay dowry, and purchase large or small items needed by individuals or families. Tattoos on men’s arms measured the length of the dentalia. The longer it was, the more it was worth.
Housing: Village dwellings were small rectangular redwood-plank houses with slanted or three-pitched roofs and a central excavated pit. Platforms lined the interior. A small anteroom was located immediately inside the entrance. They housed individual biological families.
Houses of people of standing were named. People lived in temporary brush shelters while away on the gathering trips in late summer and early fall.
Rectangular plank sweat houses served as dormitories for the men and boys of a kinship unit. A “rich man,” or head of a paternal kin group, built this structure for himself and his male relatives.
The walls lined the sides of a deep pit, within which there was a fire for providing direct heat. Men often sweated in the afternoon, alternating sweats with immersion in chilly river water, scrubbing with herbs, and reciting prayers for good fortune.
Space inside the sweat house was apportioned according to rank.
Customs: Culturally, the Yurok people are known as great fishermen, eelers, basket weavers, canoe makers, storytellers, singers, dancers, healers and strong medicine people. From the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth, many Yuroks worked in salmon canneries.
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 in order 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 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 small groups 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.
Burials: 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. If they were unmarried, this post fell to another closely related individual.
Subsistence: Acorns and salmon were riverine staples; other fish and shellfish were also eaten along the coast. Yuroks also ate sea lions, elk, deer, small game, and various roots, berries, and seeds.
Key Technology: Baskets were used for a number of purposes. Many items, including houses and canoes, were fashioned of wood. They make their canoes from the redwood tree.
Redwood trees are sacred living beings, and the places where they grow are considered sacred land.
Salmon were taken with weirs, poles, and nets as well as with harpoons. Yuroks may have had systems of higher mathematics.
Trade: Yuroks traded canoes to the Karuk and other neighboring peoples.
Notable Arts: Baskets were particularly well made, as were wood products such as sweat house stools and headrests; dugout canoes with seats, footrests, and yokes; and hollowed treasure chests.
Transportation Yuroks traveled both river and ocean on square-ended, dugout redwood canoes.
Dress Ceremonial regalia included headdresses with up to 70 redheaded-woodpecker scalps. Every adult had an arm tattoo for checking the length of dentalia strings. Everyday dress included unsoled, single-piece moccasins, leather robes (in winter), and deerskin aprons (women). Men wore few or no clothes in summer. They generally plucked their facial hair except while mourning.
War and Weapons The Yurok were not a hostile people by nature, but they feuded constantly. An elaborate wergild system, intimately connected to social status, was used to redress grievances.
In their occasional fighting among themselves or with neighboring tribes—for offenses ranging from trespass and insult to murder—they avoided pitched battles, preferring to attack individuals or raid villages. Their fighting seldom resulted in many casualties.
Young women were sometimes taken captive but were usually returned at the time of settlement. All fighting ended with compensation for everyone’s losses.
Economy Today: Logging and fishing (commercial and subsistence) are the most important local economic activities. People also leave the communities for work in the Bay area and elsewhere. Trinidad Rancheria owns a bingo parlor, and Big Lagoon Rancheria has invested in a major hotel. The Yuroks also manage two fish hatcheries.
Many Yuroks still live semi-subsistence lives of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Some still speak the Yurok language. Since the 1970s there has been a revival of traditional arts such as basket weaving and woodworking, along with some traditional ceremonies, such as the Jump and Brush Dances.
Sumeg, a recreated traditional plank hamlet, was dedicated in 1990. The few peyerk who survive are almost all elderly.
The Tsurai Health Center (Trinidad Rancheria) serves the Yurok population.
The application of dioxin by the U.S. Forest Service and timber companies to retard the growth of deciduous trees poses a major health problem in the area.
Important ongoing issues include increasing the land base, construction of decent and affordable housing, the institution of full electrical service, protection of Indian grave sites and declining salmon stocks, and economic development.
Legal Status: The Yurok Tribe, the Big Lagoon Rancheria (Yurok and Tolowa), and the Coast Indian Community of Yurok Indians of the Resighini Rancheria are federally recognized tribal entities, as are the Hoopa Extension Reservation, the Trinidad Rancheria, the Blue Lake Rancheria, the Berry Creek Rancheria, and the Elk Valley Rancheria.
In 1983, the Yuroks and the Tolowas won a protracted battle with the United States for control of a sacred mountainous site in the Six Rivers National Forest.
On November 24, 1993, the Constitution of the Yurok Tribe was certified and approved, after having passed a Ratification Election by a majority of the Yurok Tribal members. The Constitution defines the territory, jurisdiction and authority of its Tribal Government.
The Yurok Tribe’s main offices are located in Klamath, California and the Tribal government employs nearly 200 individuals.
Enrolled and registered to vote Tribal members elect nine of its members to the Tribal Council. The Tribal Chairperson and Vice Chairperson are elected at-large. Seven Council members represent the seven Tribal Districts.
Each Council member serves a term of three years. The Council meets at least monthly. Individual Council members have District meetings at least quarterly. All regular and special meetings of the Council are open to members of the Yurok Tribe. All votes of the Council are a matter of public record.
Reservation: At 63,035 acres, the Yurok Reservation is the size of many cities or counties. Without a tax base, gaming or other business revenues, the Yurok Tribe does not have the resources to construct essential community facilities, to install or replace eroding infrastructure or to create sustainable economic development on the Reservation.
Over 70% of the Yurok reservation has no access to basic telephone or electricity services.
Poverty rates average 80% on the reservation.
Problems including lack of land for economic development and community facilities, inadequate telecommunications and electrical infrastructure and a grossly substandard transportation system inhibit chance for economic growth, access to health care and educational opportunities, reduce any potential for agricultural production, and limit job opportunities.
At one time, the Yurok people lived in over fifty villages. Today, many live on several small rancherias in Humboldt County.