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ETHNONYMS: Alequa, Aliquois, Eurocs, Kanuck, Kyinnaa, Polikla, Tiamath, Ulrucks, Weits-pek, Youruk, Yurock


Identification. The name "Yu-rok" is said to be derived from the language of their neighbors, the Karok, who referred to these people as "Yuruk," meaning "downriver." Later ethnologists referred to Yurok language as Weitspekan. It appears that the Yurok had no name for themselves, but rather used the names of their towns when matters of affiliation were concerned.

Location. The ancestral home of the Yurok was on the northwest California Pacific coast, on the lower forty-five miles of the Klamath River. The remaining contemporary Yurok share the Hoopa Valley reservations in Humboldt and Klamath counties on this same part of the California coast with the Hupa. Persons of Yurok ancestry live throughout California, as well as in their ancestral territory.

Demography. 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. This is larger, it appears, than native, pre-1850 population figures, placed at about fifteen hundred; Kroeber felt that it had Certainly not been any higher than twenty-five hundred.

Linguistic Affiliation. Early twentieth-century linguists classified Yurok as an Algonkian language, but some scholars claim this affiliation cannot be confirmed. 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.

History and Cultural Relations

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.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. 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.

Contemporary Yurok of both sexes work today as state and college bureaucrats, teachers, military officers, nurses, accountants, and in the fishing and lumber industries.

Industrial Arts. 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.

Trade. 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.

Division of Labor. Shamans could be either men or women. Men traditionally were the hunters, salmon fishers, and woodworkers. Women gathered shellfish and plant foods and used twined burden baskets for gathering firewood. Children collected acorns, roots, edible berries, and wild potatoes. Rich men manufactured ceremonial regalia, and some men specialized in boat making.

Land Tenure. 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.


Kin Groups and Descent. 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.

Kinship Terminology. Murdock has suggested that the Yurok are one of several California groups with Hawaiian-type kinship systems.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Kroeber notes that the Yurok married "whom and where they pleased." In the small Yurok villages, however, exogamy was a necessity, but endogamy 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.

Inheritance. 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.

Socialization. Fathers trained their sons to be hunters and warriors, and it is said that daughters were taught by their mothers to be diligent housewives. Children were also taught to be "merry and alert."

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. 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. Slavery existed among the Yurok, though it was not an important institution; men became slaves largely through indebtedness.

Political Organization. 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.

Social Control. 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.

Conflict. 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, compensationsettlement for damages that occurredwas always required.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Yurok myths ascribed creation to Wohpekumew, "widower across the ocean." Their world was thought to float on water, and, as Kroeber related, "at the head of the river in the sky, where the Deerskin dance is danced nightly, are a gigantic white coyote and his yellow mate." Yurok dances expressed their 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.

Religious Practitioners. Among the Yurok were 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. 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.

Ceremonies. 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.

Arts. Only men could dance in Yurok ceremonies, and some served as singers who constantly composed new songs during the dances.

Medicine. 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.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the body was painted with soot and a dentalium shell inserted through the nasal septum. Great efforts were made to avoid contamination through contact with the corpse. Burial was in town cemeteries, often in small plots where several bodies might occupy a single grave. The dead were thought to go "below" where the dead Yurok had to cross a river on a boat. If the boat tipped over, the corpse was revived on earth. Once the river had been crossed, however, return was impossible. The dead were ascribed to three types of afterlife: those killed by weapons went to "the willows," forever dancing and shouting in a war dance; thieves and "contentious" persons went to an "inferior place"; and a rich, peaceable man went to "the sky."


Heizer, Robert F., and M. A. Whipple (1971). The California Indians: A Source Book. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 78, 1-97. Washington, D.C. Reprint, Berkeley: California Book Co., 1953.

Pilling, Arnold R. (1978). "Yurok." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 137-154. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.

Swezey, Sean (1975). "The Energetics of Subsistence-Assurance Ritual in Native California." In Ethnographic interpretations: 12-13, edited by Sean Swezey et al, 1-46. University of California, Archaeological Research Facility, Contributions, no. 23. Berkeley.


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Yurok (yŏŏr´ŏk), Native North Americans who in the mid-19th cent. occupied parts of NW California, particularly the area around the Klamath River. They were of the California cultural area but had some Pacific Northwest Coast traits (see under Natives, North American); they subsisted on salmon and acorns, and for money they used the dentalium shell, which they received from tribes living farther north. Their property laws were unique among Native Americans, pertaining only to the realm of the individual; the Yurok recognized no public claim to property. By 1855 a reservation was set aside for them; they then numbered some 2,500. Presently they live on several reservations in California, mainly on the Yurok reservation on the lower Klamath River. In 1990 there were some 4,400 Yurok in the United States. The Yurok and their southern neighbors, the Wiyot, speak languages of the Ritwan group that belong to the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock and possibly to the Algonquian branch of this stock (see Native American languages).

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Yurok Native American tribe formerly residing around the estuary of the Klamath River, California, USA, and speaking an Algonquian language. Reduced in number to fewer than 1000, the Yurok are now scattered along the n Californian coast.

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