views updated Jun 08 2018



Yurok (pronounced YOOR-ock) comes from the word yuruk, meaning “downriver” in the Karok language. The Yurok sometimes called themselves Olekwo’l (“the people”) or Pulikla (“downriver”), but they usually used village or clan names rather than a general tribal name. Yurok tribes were known as the Pohlik-la, Ner-er-er, Petch-ik-lah, and Klamath River Indians.


The Yurok lived in the northwestern corner of California along the lower Klamath River and along the Pacific Coast. In the 1800s the U.S. government moved the people to a reservation and several small rancherias. The Yurok Reservation is now located near the Pacific Coast in northwestern California about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of the Oregon border. Yurok territory extends 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) on either side of the Klamath River from the mouth upriver for 44 miles (71 kilometers). The rancherias are also located in northwestern California near the Oregon border.


Before the Europeans arrived approximately 2,500 Yurok lived in fifty villages. In 1910 the U.S. Bureau of the Census counted the population at 688 Yurok; in 1930 there were 471. The Bureau of Indian Affairs showed 1,917 Yurok in 1981. The 2000 census indicated 4,029 Yurok lived in the United States, and 5,873 people had some Yurok blood. The Yurok tribe is California’s largest Native American tribe with 4,466 enrolled members as of 2004. In the early years of the twenty-first century most of the people live on the Yurok Reservation (formerly the Hoopa Extension Reservation).

Language family

California Algic (Ritwan), related to Algonquian.

Origins and group affiliations

The Yurok traded with and maintained friendly relations with many neighboring tribes such as the Hupa, Chilula, Shasta, Wiyot, Tututni, and Karok. These tribes sometimes intermarried. Today the Yurok share rancherias with the Hupa, Tolowa, Weott (Wiyot), and Kuroki. (Rancheria is Spanish for a small farm.)

About ten thousand years ago ancestors of the Yurok lived near the Pacific Coast of California. The water ocean and redwood forests protected them from invasion. Natural resources provided abundant food and allowed them to live in permanent, year-round villages. A peaceful people, they generally maintained good relations with neighboring tribes and learned to speak other languages so they could communicate. Although they built plank houses like many Northwest tribes, they also shared similar religious and cultural practices with other California Indians. In modern times the Yurok have recommitted to their traditions and attempt to keep the world in balance through “good stewardship, hard work, wise laws, and constant prayers to the Creator.”


Early History

Archaeologists (scientists who study objects of the past) found evidence of Yurok civilization dating back to 1310 at present-day Patrick’s Point State Park. This village operated until white settlement occurred in the nearby area of Trinidad in 1850. Scientists also discovered a site off the coast of Patrick’s Point believed to be an ancient Yurok ceremonial spot that was filled with sea lion skulls.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Yurok lived in two main areas—along the coast or in the interior either on lagoons, at the mouths of streams, or along the lower course of the Klamath River. Similar to many California tribes, they rarely engaged in war, except for revenge. The worst battle occurred in the early 1800s between the village of Rekwoi and a Hupa village (see entry). Both settlements were destroyed. Generally, though, the Yurok had good relations with all of their neighbors.

The tribes of the area established laws and boundaries. If a member of another tribe committed a crime in Yurok territory, Yurok law applied and the Yurok imposed the penalties. Conversely, if a Yurok wronged someone on Hupa or Karok lands, he or she was subject to the laws of those tribes. To facilitate intertribal relations, most Yurok spoke their own language as well as that of their immediate neighbors. Some tribe members spoke additional languages.

The thirty to fifty Yurok villages traded among themselves and with other area tribes. They were different from many Native American peoples in that wealth determined status in the tribe. The Yurok believed in individual ownership of not only possessions, but also of land.

Important Dates

1310: Earliest Yurok archaeological discoveries date back to this time.

1775: The Yurok first encounter Europeans.

1850: California becomes a state.

1851: Gold Rush begins at Gold Bluff.

1983: The Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa win ten-year battle over sacred site in Six Rivers National Forest.

1988: Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act divides the reservations.

1993: The Yurok write a constitution.

1994: Tribe forms Yurok Tribal Council to govern the reservation.

2007: Department of the Interior awards Yurok tribe $90 million—their share of the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act.

First European contact

Because the groups were sheltered from land contact, the first explorers reached them by sea. In 1775 Juan Francisco de la Bodega (1743–1794) reached Trinidad Bay and spent several days there. He noted that the Yurok were already using iron. Other writers mentioned that the Yurok had a system of math and a calendar.

Other than providing the people with trade goods, the few vessels that arrived in Yurok territory during the eighteenth century did not have much impact on Yurok culture. It was not until 1827 that Europeans arrived among the inland peoples. Fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company were the first. The following year Jedediah Smith (1799–1831), a fur trader, sailed down the Trinity River and traded beads and tools for beaver pelts. Later the Spanish established missions.

California statehood

In 1850 California became a state. That year the state passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, a law that turned many Native rights over to the state. Native Americans could not testify against whites in court; unemployed Native Americans could be arrested and hired out; and non-Natives could take custody of Native American children. Laws also protected the settlers’ rights to land and water supplies.

Gold Rush

In 1851 a small Gold Rush (rapid movement of people into an area where gold has been discovered) began at Gold Bluffs in present-day Redwood National Park. Within a year many Yurok worked for prospectors in several different settlements. Violence, though, between the whites and Native Americans was common, and during the first year 27 Native Americans and 26 whites had been killed.

With the influx of settler and miners, the Yurok not only lost land, but were exposed to fatal diseases. The government also offered a five dollar bounty for each severed Native American head. Though this was intended to eliminate tribes who had been attacking settlers, bounty hunters beheaded many peaceful tribes too. From 1851 through 1852 the new state of California spent $1 million a year on exterminating (killing) Native peoples. The combination of diseases and massacres reduced the Yurok population by almost 75 percent.

Red Cap War

Concerned that Native American retaliation for the killings would lead to war, Colonel Redick McKee, a U.S. Indian Agent, negotiated a treaty with most tribes in the area. The Yurok signed this Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1851, which promised them a reservation along the Eel River. McKee gave them food, oxen, and farm implements. The Yurok kept their part of the bargain. They moved to the reservation and maintained peaceful relations with the whites in the area. The U.S. Senate, however, failed to ratify the treaty.

Hostilities escalated on both sides. Some tribes wanted revenge and united under the Red Caps. The Yurok remained peaceful and even offered to help the government, but whites murdered Yurok leader, Patora, after he had urged his people to give up their arms. Later army volunteers rode out to the rancherias, shook hands with the Yurok, then shot them and took women prisoners. Still the Yurok did not break the peace treaty they had signed.

Move to reservation

After the Red Caps surrendered, the U.S. government relocated the Yurok to the Klamath River Reserve along with other tribes, including the Tolowa, enemies of the Yurok. Many Tolowa fled, and another reservation was established for them at Smith River. In 1860 the Mad River and Eel River Indians moved onto the Klamath Reservation. The following year floods destroyed the reservation and left two thousand Native Americans starving. The government tried to move the Yurok to Smith River, but they refused to go.

In 1864 the Hoopa Valley Reservation opened, and many Yurok moved there. The Mad and Eel River Indians joined them. In 1874 whites pressured the government to open the Klamath area for settlement even though some Yurok still lived there. The U.S. Army investigated and found that, although many Yurok were suffering from disease, they had plenty of salmon to eat. They had built log cabins and were farming potatoes. Many Yurok men also traveled to Humboldt Bay to work on farms. By the 1890s a large number of Yurok living at Klamath had intermarried with whites, and most spoke English.

Reservation life

In 1891 the U.S. government enlarged the reservation to encompass a mile-wide strip down each side of the Klamath River for 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the Pacific Ocean. This piece of land connected the Hoopa and the Klamath Reservations.

About this time the government opened a school in Hoopa Valley to assimilate Native American children; the main goal was to make them more like whites. Students were forbidden to use their Native language. Girls learned homemaking skills, whereas boys learning farming or other trades.

The early 1900s were a time of poverty and hunger for the people. The Yurok Tribal Organization formed to reverse this situation. The group worked for the right to use traditional hunting and fishing sites. Though they had some success, in 1934 laws banned Native American commercial fishing and gill netting. Unable to support themselves as they had once done, tribe members worked for white-owned commercial fishing companies and fish packing plants. Others took jobs in the timber industry or on area farms.

Fight for rights

The Yurok continued to fish along the Klamath River. In 1964, however, the Department of Fish and Game began arresting them and taking their nets. The Yurok felt that because their fishing areas were part of the reservation, their right to fish was protected under U.S. law. They took their case to court and won. Nevertheless, throughout the 1970s the people had to fight for fishing rights. In 1979 they were allotted a certain portion of the salmon harvest.

The Yurok also had court battles over their land. Several rancherias were terminated, but a 1983 court ruling overturned that decision. That same year the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa won a ten-year legal battle over sacred sites in Six Rivers National Forest in northern California. The tribes claimed that plans by the Forest Service interfered with their use of the high country for religious purposes. The court agreed, and the tribes retained their right to use the mountains for vision quests, ceremonies, and dances.

Five years later the Yurok were given a separate reservation. During the early 1900s the U.S. government had combined the Hoopa and Yurok Reservations. The two tribes operated under a joint tribal council until the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act of 1988 passed, allowing the Yurok to establish their own tribal government; it also divided the reservation land between the tribes.

Present-day life

The Yurok wrote a constitution on November 24, 1993, and their tribal government took office in 1994. As of 2007 the council is housed in a new office complex constructed in 2002. One of the government’s first concerns was stimulating tribal economy.

Timber had been a good source of income for the tribe, but in the early years of twenty-first century declining amounts and environmental regulations resulted in lower harvests. With changes due to the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, management of timber resources should once again provide good harvests. Since the 1980s the fishing industry also declined. Dams and logging affected the flow of water and the number of fish available. Working with Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery funds as well as state, local, and tribal money, the Yurok have opened fisheries and are working to increase salmon survival (see “Current tribal issues”).

At the start of the twenty-first century the Yurok are preserving their traditions and language. They have revived many cultural practices like the Jump and Brush Dances (see “Festivals”). In 2004 Brooklyn Museum of Art responded to the Yurok’s request and returned tribal artifacts they had on display; these items are now used during dances.


Traditional beliefs

According to Yurok oral history, the “Immortals” showed humans the correct forms of behavior, dances, and interaction. After the Yurok people arrived, the Immortals departed, except from one place, Sumeg, which today is called Patrick’s Point. The three main “Beforetime People” were Wohpekumew, the human creator who was also a trickster-hero; Pulekuk-W-erek, who rid the world of bad things; and Coyote (segep), also a trickster and the main character of minor origin stories. Pulekuk-W-erek, the most spiritual of the Immortals, was an example of virtue for men. An excellent warrior, he introduced the Yurok to the sweathouse and the wealth quest.

Many Yurok believed that “Indian devils,” or sorcerers, caused accidents and evil to befall people. Sometimes the wealthy (peyerk) were accused of causing evil. Because they had been trained in prayers, people believed this also gave them knowledge of “bad prayers.” In addition, since the peyerk owned the regalia (fancy clothes) for dances, he might also use the special costumes to go abroad at night on evil missions. Sorcerers were not only held responsible for illness and death, they were also blamed for famine or natural events such as floods.

The central feature of Yurok religion is the recitation of formulas. Before people could access their power, they had to use medicine properly and recite a mythical account of each act before performing it. The purpose of this is to recreate a spiritual pattern.

Men prepared themselves for ten days before dances or other important undertakings. They used the sweathouse, stayed away from women, ate special foods, and bathed twice a day. In addition, they wore grass ankle bracelets to protect them from snakebite, gathered wood, observed certain rituals (such as cutting their legs with white quartz), and recited long formulas. These intense training periods were followed by more relaxed times because it was important to have a balanced life, to be “in the middle” (wogi).

Other religious practices

In the late 1800s the Ghost Dance spread to the Yurok from the Shasta, Karok, and Tolowa, but it lasted only a short while. The Indian Shaker Church came to some villages during the late 1920s. This religion with its emphasis on dancing, shaking, bellringing, and candles combines elements of the Christian faith with traditional Native American beliefs. But after a few decades the Assemblies of God church replaced it. During the 1970s along with a revival of traditional tribal dances such as the Brush Dance and Jump Dance (see “Festivals and ceremonies”), the Indian Shaker Church again became popular.


In the early days tribes living near boundary lines often spoke the language of their nearest neighbors. Thus some Yurok spoke their own language as well as Tolowa or Karok. Unlike most Native peoples of northern California, the Yurok speak an Algic (Ritwan) language. Yurok is related to Wiyot, but not to the other Native languages of Northern California. Wiyot and Yurok are actually distant relatives of Algonquian languages like Ojibway and Cree (see entries).

In addition to being fluent in other languages, the Yurok had several dialects of their own. Common people spoke the “low” language, while upper classes spoke the “high” language. The tribe also claimed there were differences between women’s and men’s speech as well. Some anthropologists (people who study culture) said that vocabulary for all of these seemed to be the same.

At the time of European contact in the 1800s the Yurok language had several thousand speakers; in the early twenty-first century there are about a dozen fluent native speakers, all elderly. In the early 2000s few, if any, people younger than twenty years old could speak the language. Most tribe members who participate in the Jump Dance now speak English rather than Yurok. The tribe, however, has begun an active language revitalization program.

Yurok Words

  • Aiy-yue-kwee. … “Hello.”
  • O’ -lo’ mo. … “Come in.”
  • mullah … “horse”
  • puuktek … “deer”
  • wrgrs … “fox”
  • keget … “cougar”
  • chir’ r’ y … “bear”
  • nekwel … “porcupine”
  • me’ woo … “fish”
  • leyes … “snake”
  • krhlkrh … “turtle”
  • trwrmrs … “bee”
  • new … “see”
  • ko’ m … “hear”
  • ’ e’ gah … “eat”


In the past the position of headman was not hereditary. More often than not, the richest man in the village served as leader. The chief’s main function was advisory; he gave his opinion, but others did not have to heed it. One of the main functions of a village leader was to organize the dances and provide the regalia for them.

The Yurok developed a system of laws that specified the penalties for crimes. Each wrongdoing, from stealing to murder, resulted in a monetary payment to the injured party. If the criminal did not pay the debt, the family was held responsible. In rare cases where the penalty remained unpaid, the Yurok who was owed the money might take revenge.

After the U.S. government relocated the tribes, the Hupa and Yurok not only shared a reservation, but also a tribal government. Once the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act passed, the Yurok wrote their own constitution in 1993 and set up the Yurok Tribal Council.

In the 2000s the majority of the rancherias are home to many different tribes. They are governed by tribal councils elected by all the residents. Most also have business councils or a tribal administrator to manage tribal programs and oversee economic development. On the Yurok Reservation the tribal council consists of seven members, one from each of the various districts, as well as a tribal chair and vice chair who are elected to three-year terms. The Council usually meets monthly, and District meetings occur quarterly. All regular and special meetings of the Council are open to members of the Yurok Tribe.

Yurok Population: 2000 Census

In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked tribes in the United States to identify the groups to which they belonged. Those who identified themselves as Yurok lived in the following areas. The numbers also reflect members of other tribes who share some of the rancherias.

Yurok Population: 2000 Census
TribePopulation in 2000
Big Lagoon Rancheria24
Blue Lake Rancheria78
Elk Valley Rancheria100
Resighini Rancheria90
Trinidad Rancheria315 (in 2004)
Yurok Reservation1,103

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Early economy

Most Native Americans believed that land belonged to everyone, and they shared their possessions freely. The Yurok, though, not only owned land, they measured wealth by it and sold it to each other. Although some land was used by all tribe members, most hunting and fishing grounds were individually owned. If men wanted to fish at someone else’s fishing station, they rented it for a share of their catch.

Traveling by canoe, the Yurok carried on extensive trade with other tribes. They valued woodpecker scalps, obsidian (shiny black or banded volcanic glass), and white deerskin. Their money, called Ali-cachuck, was a long, conical shell found in Queen Charlotte Sound. The wealthiest members of Yurok society owned multiple sets of dance regalia and hosted ceremonies. They also displayed their status through their clothing, especially basketry caps, and speech patterns.

Modern economy

Major income producers on the rancherias in the early twenty-first century include casinos, service and retail businesses, and tourism. Some also have forestry, fisheries, farmland, mining, or real estate development. At Elk Valley proceeds from the tribe’s casino and investments fund social and educational programs; by 2003 they had no members on welfare.

On the Yurok Reservation the government provides almost half of all jobs. Other employment is found in farming, forestry, fishing, tourism, management, and professional occupations. The tribe plans to use the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act monies (see “Current tribal issues”) to managing timber resources, develop more recreational sites in the Klamath River Basin, begin a gravel operation, and create a travel center.

Daily life


In most Yurok households several generations of men (related on their father’s side) lived with their wives, children, unmarried relatives, adopted kin, and daughters who had in-marrying husbands (see “Marriage”). The eldest male owned the house. If the family grew too large, they built another house nearby with the same name. Residents of the new house shared the sweathouse.


The Yurok dug a hole 4 to 5 feet (1–2 meters) deep and 12 to 15 feet (3–5 meters) in diameter that served as a fire pit and eating area. This formed the center of the 20-foot (6-meter) square cabin built of redwood or cedar planks split from fallen trees or cut from large trees, allowing the tree to heal and remain alive. The single or double pitched roof had moveable planks to let in more air in warm weather. It also had an opening for smoke from the fire pit.

The door was a round hole, just large enough for a person to crawl through on all fours. People climbed down a ladder made of a notched log. Logs also served as benches. Mats and furs made the house more comfortable. Space along the walls was used for storage. Racks hung from the ceiling for drying fish over the fire.

Outside the ground was swept clean and often paved with stones. Large rocks on each side of the door allowed women to sit while they wove and talked. Men did not sleep in their family houses, but in sweathouses, which were 4 feet (1 meter) deep and covered with layered boards. A notched stone slab led down to the inside. There was an escape tunnel if the room grew too hot or smoky.

At seasonal fishing or gathering spots, families built temporary shelters of branches.

Tools and transportation

Men used stone adzes and elkhorn wedges to carve redwood into stools, storage boxes, cooking implements, and blunt-ended dugout canoes. To make canoes, they spread pitch on a fallen tree trunk and burned out the center, leaving the sides and ends thin and smooth. The process often took five to six months, because canoes were 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) long. The Yurok often sold them to other tribes because they worked well for both river and sea traveling.

Men made quivers to hold their arrows from marten or raccoon skin turned inside out. They sewed it up so that the tail fluttered in breeze. They carried them over their shoulders with a thong, head-end down. They stuffed the animal head with grass or moss to cushion the arrowheads.

Clothing and adornment

Women wore knee-length deerskin skirts open in front to show an apron underneath. This fringed apron had pine nut shells strung on grass cords. Skirts for special occasions were adorned with clam or abalone shells.

Yurok men and children rarely wore clothing. Men sometimes wore a deerskin breechcloth (garment with apronlike flaps that covered the front and back). In cold weather both men and women added leggings, moccasins with elkhide soles, and robes made of deer, coyote, or raccoon.

Both sexes parted their hair in middle and tied it to each side in ropes. Some men had one rope in back. Wealthier women wore basketry caps, and men sometimes used deerskin headbands. For dances or ceremonies, Yurok warriors donned headdresses decorated with woodpecker scalps or sea lion teeth.

Women tattooed lines on their chins; men tattooed their arms. Earrings were large discs of abalone shell or strings of dentalium (shell money) decorated with red woodpecker feathers. Both sexes draped multiple shell necklaces around their necks.


Yurok men caught salmon, sturgeon, eel, and shellfish from their canoes. Along the coast they collected mussels, clams, sea anemones, and seaweed for salt. Hunters, disguised in bear or deerskins, waited on rocks for sea lions and seals to emerge from the water. Then they barked and twisted their bodies to get the animals’ attention so they could harpoon them. The Yurok liked whale meat, but only ate those that were stranded; they never hunted them.

Inland people hunted deer, elk, bear, rabbit, and other small game. To catch salmon, they wove nets of grass and stretched them across a stream. Then they made fishing booths by sticking poles in the water and lashing branches to make a floor a few feet above water. They covered these with brushwood roofs and slept there with a string attached to their fingers or to an alarm system of sticks and bones (later they used bells). When salmon swam into the net, the string jerked and alerted them. To catch ducks, they sprinkled berries underwater and put a coarse net under the surface. When the ducks dove for the berries, they got tangled in the net and drowned, but they stayed quiet so they did not warn off other birds.

The Yurok sundried surf-fish whole and hung it in rows over poles. They split salmon and lamprey eel (also prized for its grease) for drying. Most fish was smoked, and then packed in baskets. Women gathered acorns and ground them into meal and collected wild oats, bulbs, seeds, berries, and roots. Anise, grapes, ferns, chinkapins, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and angelica also grew wild.


Boys learned to hunt and fish, while girls learned to cook, weave, and care for babies. Wealthy Yurok also traveled, learned other languages, and memorized religious formulas. In explaining traditional Yurok educational practices, Harry Roberts, a white man adopted by the tribe who later became a Yurok leader and medicine man, said:

[A] Yurok child is taught but one lesson at a time. If the child or young person cannot answer the question his teacher asks, then he simply goes off and ‘studies’ that area until he comes up with a better answer. Until he does, he is not asked another question. His education has come to an end until one thing at a time is mastered.

From the late 1800s until 1932 Yurok children were forced to learn English and various trades at the government school in Hoopa Valley. Today most students attend public schools or the Yurok Magnet Elementary School in Weitchpec that opened in 2003. The tribe also has various educational programs such as Head Start, vocational training, cultural programs, and tutoring. The Yurok Language Program sets up master/apprentice teams to pass on language skills to the younger generation. The tribe also supports higher education through scholarships.

Healing practices

To become a healer, a person (usually a woman) dreamed about it. She then asked an experienced doctor to teach her. The training was intense and ended with a dance where the teacher “vomited up her pain” and the novice ate it, enabling her to heal others. Doctors also held dances when they dreamed of new cures.

Doctors came to the house to cure the sick or had people brought to them. They were paid in advance, and if one could not heal the patient, she recommended someone else. Healing techniques included using herbal medicines, reciting formulas, and sucking out illness. One of the most important cures was for a patient to confess past wrongs; this could also include wrongs done by his ancestors. The healer then offered positive prayers.

Positive prayer also helped babies affected by witchcraft. It blew away any “bad prayers.” Brush Dances might be held for an ill child. These five-day dances included singing and holding a child near steaming herbs or blazing spruce.

By 1970 most Yurok, especially the younger generation, used the Indian Shaker religion or white medicine rather than traditional healing techniques. By that time the tribe had no surviving healers, so those who wanted to participate in healing ceremonies called on two female shaman from another tribe.

How Thunder and Earthquake Made Ocean

This Yurok tale explains how the oceans were formed and filled with fish. Thunder, Earthquake, and Kingfisher all played important roles in the creation of the Earth. The story takes place in the time when animals were like people.

One day Thunder wanted to give people water, so he sent Kingfisher and Earthquake with abalone shells to collect water at Opis. First Earthquake sank the north end of the world.

Then Kingfisher and Earthquake started for Opis. They went to the place at the end of the water. They made the ground sink behind them as they went. At Opis they saw all kinds of seals and salmon. They saw all the kinds of animals and fish that cou1d be eaten there in the water at Opis. Then they took water in the abalone shells.

“Now we will go to the south end of the world,” said Earthquake. “We will go there and look at the water. Thunder, who is at Sumig, will help us by breaking down the trees. The water will extend all the way to the South end of the world. There will be salmon and fish of all kinds and seals in the water.”

Now Kingfisher and Earthquake came back to Sumig. They saw that Thunder had broken down the trees. Together the three of them went north. As they went together they kept sinking the ground. The Earth quaked and quaked and water flowed over it as Kingfisher and Earthquake poured it from their abalone shells. Kingfisher emptied his shell and it filled the ocean halfway to the north end of the world. Earthquake emptied his shell and it filled the ocean the rest of the way.

As they filled in the ocean, the creatures which would be food swarmed into the water. The seals came as if they were thrown in in handfuls. Into the water they came, swimming toward shore. Earthquake sank the land deeper to make gullies and the whales came swimming through the gullies where the water was deep enough for them to travel. The salmon came running through the water.

Now all the land animals, the deer, and elk, the foxes and mink, the bear and others had gone inland. Now the water creatures were there. Now Thunder and Kingfisher and Earthquake looked at the ocean. “This is enough,” they said. “Now the people will have enough to live on. Everything that is needed is in the water.”

So it is that the prairie became ocean. It is so because Thunder wished it so. It is so because Earthquake wished it so. All kinds of creatures are in the ocean before us because Thunder and Earthquake wished the people to live.

Bruchac, Joseph. Native American Stories. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1991.


Yurok artists are known for their basketry and woodcarving (see “Tools and transportation”). Women wove willow twigs or pine roots into large round mats to hold acorn flour. They also wove squash-shaped watertight baskets, drinking cups, and hats. They decorated their basketry by weaving black roots among the beige twigs to form patterns of squares, diamonds, or zigzags.

Traditional basketwork gave way in the 1970s to brighter, more colorful patterns. The new baskets used black and white or red and yellow. Most basketmakers no longer made mush pots, large regalia storage containers, or Jump Dance baskets; instead they designed fruit baskets, place mats, and miniature baskets made into earrings or pins.



Yurok communities consisted of the aristocrats (the wealthy), commoners, and slaves. Wealthy people had homes at higher elevations. Called peyerk, meaning “real man,” they went on sponsored vision quests and were the only ones who performed religious duties. They wore stylish clothes, ate imported foods, practiced special eating etiquette, hosted ceremonies, spoke several languages, and traveled to gain knowledge and prestige.


On her first menses, a girl stayed apart from her family, using her own fire. For good luck she collected fuel. At sunset she ran from her house down to the river, went into the water, then raced back to the hut, pursued by young boys who made sure that she ran quickly. She repeated this for ten days, each day adding one more run than the previous day. When she reached her house, she stopped near the doorway, raised her hands with palms facing out, then turned and ran back to the river.

She wore a skirt of shredded maple bark and bands of grass on her head, arms, and legs. For ten days she did not comb her hair or touch herself, except with a bone scratcher hung around her neck on a string. Using this prevented her from absentmindedly touching herself, because she was to pay full attention to her body. She ate acorn mush and salmon only three times during her seclusion. A friend carried her food for her, and she sat near the river so she would not hear animal or bird sounds. Whenever she heard one of those sounds, she had to stop eating. This time alone was for finding her life’s purpose and acquiring spiritual energy.

From then on, during her periods she lived in a separate, underground hut. Special food was collected and stored there, along with her own utensils. During this ten-day menstrual seclusion, women ate no red meat or fresh fish and followed a program of bathing, wood gathering, and saying long prayers. Their husbands did not hunt during this time, and the women could not participate in ceremonies.


Most families valued girls because they received a payment when their daughters married. If the groom did not have enough shells, he paid half of the cost and was “half-married.” Instead of taking his bride to his cabin, he lived with her family and became a slave. Their children took the mother’s name. Men who paid full price lived with the man’s parents, and the children took the father’s name. Both spouses kept their personal property when they married.

If a girl became pregnant, the man who was responsible had to purchase and marry her. The birth of a child was celebrated with a dance. In the case of divorce, a man received the bride payment back.


Traditional Yurok ceremonies include the Deerskin Dance, Doctor Dance, Jump Dance, Brush Dance, Kick Dance, Flower Dance, and Boat Dance. These draw the Yurok people and neighboring tribes together for renewal, healing, and prayer. An annual Salmon Festival is held in August.

Deerskin dancers wear civet cat or deerskin aprons, many dentalium shells necklaces, and forehead bands of wolf fur. A stick on their heads holds two or four black and white eagle or condor feathers with woodpecker scalps attached. They carry poles with stuffed deer heads (usually white) that have fake tongues decorated with woodpecker scalps. The deerhide and legs dangle down.

The Jump Dance is held for world renewal. Two sides form separate camps and engage in heated debate. The dance combines prayers, formulas, formal speeches, and ends with both sides dancing together—representing the balance in the world being restored. Feasting follows. The dance shows that unity does not always mean that two people or groups must be in perfect agreement; they can be very different, but complementary, like voices that harmonize. And as one Hupa participant explained, “The longer one dances, the closer to restoring world balance the dance comes, the more xoche each person becomes, the more ‘right,’ ‘clean,’ ‘real’—the more Indian.”

Death rituals

A corpse was carried, feet first, in a complete circle around the room, then out through an opening in the roof or wall made by removing a board. A person sprinkled ashes and said, “I wish you may never return,” to prevent the deceased’s spirit from returning to the house.

The Yurok buried their dead lying down, with their heads facing upstream. They placed dentalium shells, woodpecker scalps, obsidian blades, ceremonial costumes, and weapons in the grave. All items were broken to make them useless to grave robbers. The tribe burned food and clothes to send them along with the dead into the afterlife. A fire burned for five nights near grave, and the widow or widower stayed to be sure the spirit departed. This also prevented sorcerers from digging up the body to make death-causing medicine.

The people believed the spirits of dead crossed a horizontal, greased pole over the chasm of the “Debatable Land” to reach the “Happy Western Land” beyond the ocean. The spirits needed fire to light their way. Good people moved faster, so the number of nights the fire was lit depended on the person’s actions. Dead souls, especially those of the wicked, could return as animals.

Funeral participants went through a purifying ritual for five days afterwards. Every morning in the sweathouse a male or female priest repeated a formula, then gave each person a piece of háiwamás, a plant that they pulverized with water in a small basket. They used this mixture to wash themselves. After inhaling the smoke from a fire kindled with buckbrush, they went to the river to bathe.

Following this two-hour ritual, everyone except the gravedigger went about their usual duties. He prepared and ate his meals at his own fire and carried a staff in his right hand and Douglas fir branches in his left over his head. Relatives cut the ends of their hair, while the widow cut hers short. Family members, including children, wore plaited grass necklaces until they fell off; they never spoke the dead person’s name again.

Current tribal issues

Interest in traditional religion, tradition, dances, and language is high. The tribe has been working to restore many of the practices that had been outlawed or lost over the decades of reservation living. One of their missions has been to recover artifacts, sacred objects, and human remains that have been taken by museums, colleges, and individuals.

Dams on the Klamath have reduced the river flow and killed many salmon, affecting the Yurok’ ability to subsist. Although they won the right to fish there, they have restricted fishing until the fish population increases. Pollution, too, is causing many difficulties.

Poverty on the reservation has been severe, and more than 70 percent of the homes were without basic phone or electric service in the early 2000s. Without funds from gaming or other revenue, the tribe had few resources to help the people. With the $90 million settlement they received in 2007 as part of the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, they hope to install utility services, improve homes and roads, construct public buildings, and fund higher education.

Notable people

Two of the most well-known Yurok women during the late 1800s and early 1900s were Lucy Thompson (born 1856), who wrote To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman in 1916 to preserve her tribe’s culture and heritage, and Fanny Flounder, a famous tribal doctor. Other Yurok who achieved fame include Robert Spott (1888-1953), co-author of the Yurok Narratives published in 1942 and chairman of the Yurok Tribal Council; Leo Carpenter Jr., a Karuk-Hupa-Yurok Indian known for his basket weaving and his contributions to the California Indian Cultural Center and Museum (CICCM); Frank G. Gist Jr. (1954–), a self-taught carver; and Amy Smoker, a weaver who created baskets that continue to be used in ceremonies.

Buckley, Thomas, and Alma Gottlieb, eds. Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Buckley, Thomas. Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850–1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Holm, Bill. Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art in the Burke Museum. Seattle: Burke Museum; University of Washington Press, 1987.

Irwin, Lee, ed. Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

O’Neale, Lila M. Yurok-Karok Basket Weavers. Berkeley, CA: Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 2007.

Spott, Robert, and A. L. Kroeber. Yurok Narratives. Trinidad, CA: Trinidad Museum Society, 1997.

Thompson, Lucy. To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1991.

Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian, vol. 13. Northwestern University Digital Library Collections. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Fryer, Francesca. “Sandspit II.” A Redwood Northcoast Notebook. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“Native Languages of the Americas: Yurok.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“The Northwestern Culture Area: Yurok.” California History Online. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Sannella, Lee. Harry Roberts: Yurok Medicine Man. (accessed on October 9, 2007).

The Yurok Tribe. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“Yurok.” Four Directions Institute. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards


views updated Jun 11 2018


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.



views updated Jun 11 2018

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.