Hupa and Chilula
Hupa and Chilula
Hupa (pronounced HOO-pah) and Chilula (chee-LOO-lah). The word “Hupa” comes from the name the Yurok Indians gave to the Hoopa Valley. One group of Hupa called themselves Natinixwe (pronounced Nah-tin-o-whey) or Natinook-wa, meaning “the people of the place by the river to which the trails return.” A second group called themselves Tsnungwe, as they still do. The valley tribe is now known as the Hoopa Valley Tribe, but the individual Native people are called Hupa.
The name “Chilula” is an Americanized version of the Yurok čulula, meaning “they frequent Bald Hills” or “they pass through Bald Hills.” They were known to their other neighbors as the Bald Hills Indians or Redwood Creek Indians. The Chilula called themselves Hoil’kut.
Both the Hupa and Chilula lived in northwestern California, the Hupa along the shores of the Trinity River and the Chilula in the lower section of Redwood Creek in Humboldt County. At the start of the twenty-first century most of the remaining Hupa and descendants of the Chilula (who no longer use the name and have become part of the other groups on the reservation) lived on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, a 144-square-mile (13-square-kilometer) area that covers one-half of traditional Hupa territory. Some Hupa also share the Blue Lake Rancheria in Humboldt County.
There were an estimated one thousand Hupa in 1850, and about four hundred to six hundred Chilula in the early 1800s. The Hupa population fell to 420 in 1906. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 2,386 people identified themselves as Hupa (or Hoopa); no one claimed to be Chilula. The 2000 census indicated that there were 2,589 Hupa; of that number 2,051 lived on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The census also showed 3,207 people with some Hupa heritage living in the United States.
Origins and group affiliations
Archaeologists and linguists believe that the Hupa and Chilula originally lived north of California, most likely in Oregon. They probably began the move south about 1,300 years ago and completed the move about 300 years later. The Hupa had contact with the Yurok (see entry) and Karok, and the Chilula also maintained a good relationship with the Yurok. The Chilula, however, did not trust the Teswan, who blocked their path to the Pacific Ocean; the two groups fought often over hunting grounds. In the early twenty-first century the Hupa share the Blue Lake Rancheria with the Yurok and Wiyot.
The Hupa are and always have been the largest of the Athabaskan-speaking tribes living in northwestern California. They were river people whose way of life depended on the runs of salmon that still occur each fall on the Trinity River. They believe their village at the heart of the Hoopa Valley is the center of the world and that all trails return to it. The Hupa shared a language and most customs with their less prosperous neighbors, the Chilula, who depended on the much smaller Redwood Creek for resources. The frequently damp, foggy climate, rocky cliffs, narrow stony beaches, and hardwood forests that surrounded the two tribes had more in common with the Pacific Northwest than with typical California locales.
Discovery of gold
Long before the coming of fur trappers in the 1800s, the Hupa and Chilula lived in secluded and prosperous villages where natural resources were fairly plentiful and life was comfortable. They were so secluded that they had almost no contact with whites until 1850. That year gold was discovered on the upper Trinity River, bringing a flood of prospectors to the Natives’ lands. The gold beds quickly ran dry, but some miners stayed in the area and built homes and planted orchards.
Throughout the United States relations between whites and Native Americans were far from good. In California, where white settlers and gold seekers were pouring in, rumors spread about “wild” Indians killing “innocent” whites. Fort Gaston was built in 1855 to protect white settlers from the Hupa and Chilula. U.S. troops were stationed at the fort.
1828: American trappers enter the Hoopa Valley.
1850: Gold is discovered on the Trinity River; prospectors pour onto Hupa and Chilula lands.
1859: One hundred sixty Chilula attending what they think is a peace conference are forced onto a reservation in Mendocino. Attempting to return home, most are killed by Lassik Indians.
1864: The Hoopa Valley Reservation is established.
1892: Fort Gaston is abandoned by the U.S. government.
1950: The Hoopa Valley Tribe adopts a constitution.
1988: The Hoopa–Yurok Settlement Act is signed, giving the Hoopa Valley Tribe full rights to profits from timber harvested on the reservation.
Hupa resistance to reservation
Seeking to end the growing violence Californians were showing toward Native Americans in the 1850s, the U.S. government began talks with the tribes, urging them to give up their homelands in exchange for other lands on newly established reservations that were tiny and insufficient. Most California tribes were moved to stretches of land far from their traditional homelands. Reservation land was usually unsuitable for farming and lacking in water and game.
For five years the Hupa resisted the government’s efforts to move them. Finally, in 1864 a reservation was established on their ancestral land. The Hupa people who lived on the south fork of the Trinity River (they called themselves Tsnungwe) soon joined the Valley Hupa on the reservation, as did some of their neighbors, the Yurok. The Klamath tribe moved to the same area in the early 1880s, at which point the Tsnungwe returned to their homeland on the Trinity River.
Disease and war
At the time of the move to the reservation, the presence of foreigners was taking its toll on the Native population. White settlers exposed the people of the Hoopa Valley to new diseases. Lacking immunity to white diseases, the Hupa were hit hard by epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease), and the population fell to 650 by 1864.
Between 1860 and 1872 the Hupa and other area tribes engaged in a series of Indian wars with whites. Settlers had taken over Native territories, murdered Native Americans, kidnapped their children, and burned their villages. The most dramatic event occurred in 1867; it resulted in the deaths of several white law enforcement agents and one Native American who was suspected of robbery. More conflicts arose as U.S. troops tried to place non-valley Native Americans on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, but these disputes were relatively minor.
The Chilula and the whites were involved in far more serious clashes. The Chilula people first met gold miners and white settlers in 1851, and the relationship between the two groups was instantly hostile. In response to the invasion of their territory by strangers who stole their resources, the Chilula ambushed the miners and took their supplies. The miners then shot members of the tribe on sight. Outbreaks of violence continued throughout the 1850s, as soldiers stationed at Fort Gaston and other area sites aided the whites in their anti-Native campaign.
Chilula resistance slowed white advancement onto Native American lands, but the tribe’s skillful defense of ancestral territories fueled strong anti-Chilula feelings among the whites. Eventually, settlers formed their own army to drive the Chilula away. On March 4, 1859, they tricked the Chilula into attending an alleged peace conference. Instead of discussing peace, the whites rounded up about 160 Chilula (one-quarter of the tribe), forced them onto a ship, and moved them to a reservation 150 miles (241 kilometers) away in Mendocino.
Chilula warriors escaped from the reservation and headed home through unknown territory, guided by the Sun and stars. Then, near Fort Seward on the Eel River, they were attacked without warning by a Lassik (another Athabaskan-speaking California tribe) war party. All but one or two Chilula were killed. In retaliation, the few Chilula who remained at Redwood Creek joined the Hupa and the Whilkut and raided a Lassik summer camp.
Hearing of the violence, miners avoided the area. Finally a U.S. government agent convinced the few remaining Chilula to join the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Once there, the Chilula intermixed and intermarried with the other tribes on the reservation. In time, they lost the traits that made them Chilula, until ultimately they were no longer regarded as a separate tribe.
On the reservation
On the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the Native Americans began adapting to American ways of life: they settled down to farm and raise livestock and became self-supporting. The Hupa were more fortunate than many other California tribes. Because they were physically isolated from white communities and because they remained on their own land and lived among the same tribes that had always been their neighbors, they were better able to preserve their traditions and their community. They did, however, encounter conflict with government agents and soldiers at Fort Gaston.
For 28 years the Hupa endured harsh treatment at the hands of occupying troops. Idle soldiers set their sights on Hupa women, fathering children. In 1892 Fort Gaston was closed, and the troops moved elsewhere. This change was a blessing for the Hupa. They gradually combined American and Native ways and prospered on their reservation. At the end of the twentieth century the reservation had gained recognition for its many historic sites and buildings. In spite of adopting American ways, the Hupa retained a visible connection to their past and a strong cultural identity. The Athabaskan language is still spoken, and the Hupa are making efforts to preserve their customs, arts, and traditions.
Much more is known about Hupa religious practices than those of the Chilula. The Hupa believed that a race of Immortals (beings who would live forever) inhabited Earth prior to humans. The Immortals put the Earth in order for all humanity and formed rules for living on it. Then the ancestors of the Hupa and Chilula sprang to life. (The Chilula believed they came from a large hollow redwood tree.) People were only one of many important elements on Earth. Spirits were believed to be present in all things, and everything in nature was to be respected and tended.
Coping with everyday life
Everyday life was filled with uncertainty as the Hupa and Chilula people grappled with the elements, disease, fear, and the threat of war. Religion helped people cope. The Native Americans practiced many daily rituals to promote good health, wealth, and luck. They also performed formal rituals established by the Immortals. The rituals were an integral part of the World Renewal Cycle (see “Festivals and ceremonies”), which guaranteed world order. Village priests were in charge of the tribe’s World Renewal activities.
Christians established missions on the reservation in the late 1800s, and some Native people converted to the new religion. Their traditional rituals, however, remained a central part of their lives.
Hupa and Chilula languages were closely related. Language was regarded as holy; nothing in the natural world was as powerful as the words used in prayers. Words could not only heal but could also do great evil. As the Chilula were absorbed into the reservation system, their language perished.
To revive the Hupa language, the tribe began a Master/Apprentice Program, in which a skilled speaker is paired with a beginner. This method of learning has been increasing the number of younger speakers in the tribe. Before the program began, only a few elders spoke Hupa. By 2000, sixty-four youth between the ages of five and seventeen could speak the language.
- nosht’ah … “I don’t believe it.”
- bo:se … “cat”
- sa:ts’ … “bear”
- je:nis … “day”
- t’e’ … “blanket”
- tLoh … “grass”
- qo … “worm”
- to … “water”
- wha … “sun”
- whing … “song”
- xontah … “house”
- wiLdung’ … “yesterday”
- xong’ … “fire”
The most important tribal unit among the northwestern California Indians was the village; there was no single chief who headed the entire Hupa or Chilula nations. Villages were composed of groups of people who shared the same family tree. Each village maintained its own version of law and order and was guided by a chief or powerful leader, usually the wealthiest or most popular man in the village. Occasionally a group of wealthy Hupa men gathered to resolve disputes or decide on a payment for breaking rules.
After the formation of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the Hupa became dependent on U.S. government agents—who were not always honest or fair in their role as mediator between the whites and the Native Americans. Sometimes agents broke the laws they were supposed to be upholding, as when they allowed whites to harvest grain planted by the Native Americans. Then the Native Americans experienced a food shortage and had to ask for government handouts.
In the mid-twentieth century many tribes became less dependent on the federal government as they established their own leadership. The Hoopa Valley Tribe adopted a constitution in 1950. In the early twenty-first century they are governed by a seven-member elected tribal council. Members represent districts that were formerly Hupa villages. The tribal government oversees many departments including health, education, natural resources, communication, human services, finances, and tribal services. The tribe also participates in the Self-Governance Demonstration Project. This project helps tribes exercise their rights to be self-governing, structure their own programs, and use federal funds in ways that benefit the tribe. For example, after the nearby hospital closed in the late 1980s, all emergency patients had to be transported 65 miles away. Although the Hoopa came up with the funding, federal regulations prevented them from reopening the hospital. Since then they have been working to ensure that all tribes have the right to develop their own health care systems.
Before European contact
The Hupa were primarily fishers, and the abundant resources of the Trinity River amply supplied their needs. They traveled the river in large canoes dug out of 16- to 18-foot (5-meter) lengths of redwood and cedar, which they received in trade from the Yurok. Often they journeyed by foot on well-used trails over the mountains to the Pacific Coast to trade, taking acorns and other foods they had gathered, plus shell money, to exchange for fish and dried seaweed. (They extracted salt from the seaweed.)
The Chilula had to rely on the less abundant resources of Redwood Creek. Because this waterway was too small for canoes to travel, the Chilula supplemented their needs with what they could obtain by hunting and gathering.
Repayment of debt was considered a pressing issue among the Hupa and Chilula. People who had borrowed from others and could not repay the debt had to go to work for the person they owed until the debt was repaid. Records indicate that indebted men would often send their daughters to work to pay off the debt.
Unlike many Native American tribes whose hunting and gathering lands were owned by all, the Hupa and Chilula permitted individual ownership of hunting and gathering areas. In terms of fishing rights, the Hupa allowed individuals to claim certain sites; the Chilula, however, did not.
Timber and tourism
By the late 1990s the Hoopa Valley Reservation was the largest in size, population, and income in California. Rich timberlands on the reservation’s 87,000 acres (primarily Douglas fir) supported four mills and created jobs in the timber industry.
With a thriving timber business, its historic sites and recreational center, gaming, and retail enterprises; the Hoopa Valley Reservation has become largely self-sufficient in the early twenty-first century. The tribe owns California Indian Manpower Corporation, which provides jobs for many different tribes. The tribal government is the second largest employer in the county. In addition to agriculture and livestock, the reservation also owns fisheries and operates mines and a cement plant.
Northwestern California Indian families usually included a father, a mother, their children, and a few unmarried relatives. They lived in single-family homes in villages ranging in size from six to thirty homes.
Hupa and Chilula families spent most of the year in sturdy, rectangular redwood or cedar plank houses that lasted for generations. The wealthier the family, the bigger the house and the more desirable its location; the best sites might be on hillsides, for example, which offered better views and protection from floods.
Houses were constructed over a pit at least 5 feet (1–2 meters) deep. A notched plank served as a staircase, leading down from the front door to the floor of the sunken dwelling. Homes often included a front porch made of rocks, where people sat and worked. In spring and fall the people moved to a gathering territory and lived in temporary shelters made of brush or bark.
Like many tribes of the West, the Hupa and Chilula built separate lodges for women who were menstruating. (The men believed that exposure to menstrual blood would ruin their good luck.) Men purified themselves before hunting and gathering by sitting in sweathouses—secluded huts or caverns heated by steam and used for ritual cleansing and meditation. Some villages also contained circular dance houses where wealthy men hosted lavish ceremonies.
Clothing and adornment
The Hupa and Chilula dressed alike. Because the climate was mild, men usually wore only an animal-skin breechcloth (a garment with front and back flaps that hung from the waist), though many of the elderly men went nude.
Women wore only a knee-length fringed apron of pine nuts braided onto grass. Over this they tied a piece of deerskin, open down the front so the underskirt showed. Dressier skirts had clamshell and abalone decorations. Later they adopted buckskin shirts and aprons, adding a fringed skirt threaded with shells for certain ceremonies. Sometimes Chilula women wore dresses of maplewood bark.
Though the Hupa occasionally wore moccasins for long journeys and men wore leggings while hunting, they usually went barefoot. Women wore caps to protect their heads while carrying baskets and cradles. In the winter the Hupa wore robes of animal skin for added warmth. These were made of deerskin or the fur of wildcats, raccoons, coyotes, civets, or other small mammals.
Both men and women had long hair; they parted it in the center and arranged it into two ropes that they pulled in front of the shoulders. Some men wore a single rope behind their heads. The Chilula wore headbands of yellowhammer quail feathers. Wealthy men and women wore shell ornaments in their pierced ears, and women tattooed their chins with vertical bands of color.
In the Hoopa Valley
The Hoopa Valley had plentiful resources and a moderate climate, so the people did not have to travel far for food. Spared the extreme summer heat that blanketed the rest of California, the region offered a rich supply of green plants for gathering year-round. Still, the Hupa focused most of their efforts on stockpiling two main food sources—salmon and acorns—that fed them well throughout the year. These foods remain an important element in Hupa celebrations.
Each spring and fall the valley tribes harvested hordes of spawning fish in the Trinity River. They broiled fresh fish on sticks over an open fire, then sliced and smoke–dried the excess. The Hupa also fished for steelhead trout, sturgeon, eels, and an assortment of smaller fish, but hunted only rarely.
Women were responsible for gathering acorns of the tan oak. The acorns were pounded to meal (a coarsely ground flour), cooked over heated stones, and served as mush. Sometimes women cooked them as cakes after adding nuts, berries, fruits, roots, or other plants.
Deer Medicine—The Naslindiñ Young Man
In many Chilula tales, such as this one told by Tom Hill and his son, Dan Hill, animals have special powers to help people. Here, the mountain also represents supernatural powers that can aid the hunter. The young man watches the mountain grow, which will give him strength. But he does not follow the tribe’s usual practice of not thinking about women before hunting. The Chilula believed that women brought bad luck to hunters.
A young Kixunnai man came into being back of Naslindiñ. The mountain grew along with him. When he looked out at midnight the mountain had grown up higher. He used to hunt deer. He did not sleep. After a time that one who did not sleep slept. He dreamed about women. Notwithstanding he went out in the morning. The mountain which grew up with him was not there. Nevertheless he went out for deer. He climbed up into the sky. There were no deer to be seen. He heard deer snort by the eastern water. “This way it will be,” he thought. “Indians will come.” He came back. “I will make its medicine.” Then he made it. When he looked, it (the mountain) had grown up again. In the morning he went out again and went up to the sky. A deer was standing with its face toward him “This way it is,” he thought. “Indians will come. Even if he does this way, he will kill deer if he has my herb and says my formula.”
This way only.
Goddard, Pliny Earle. “Deer Medicine—The Naslindiñ Young Man.” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 10, 7 (1914).
Along Redwood Creek
Chilula men were skilled hunters who depended on elk and deer—supplemented with acorns—as their main food source. The Chilula usually roasted fresh meats and cut any leftovers into strips, then dried or stored them for winter consumption. No part of an animal was wasted. Tribal law did not allow the killing or eating of any bears; the Chilula believed bears were once their relatives.
In their temporary summer and fall camps Chilula women gathered seeds, strawberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries. During fall they dug for wild potatoes and harvested the all-important acorns. Other key foods included Native American lettuce, clover, wild oats, wild onions, and grasses.
The Chilula fished in Redwood Creek, although it was too small to yield large catches. King salmon were taken with spears and dip nets at the base of waterfalls, and steelhead trout were caught in brushwood nets. The Chilula also developed an elaborate system of weirs (human-made dams) that slowed down eel and trout so they could be speared, harpooned, or netted. (Those Native Americans who helped build the dam were said to own the spot on which it stood.) They added soap plant bulbs to water to drug the fish, which they then scooped out of the water in nets.
Children spent most of their early years playing. They were taught religion and good manners, especially proper eating habits. Other skills were learned over time by observing adults. Young boys sometimes joined the men in the sweathouses; they listened to the adults’ prayers for hunting success and learned hunting techniques, codes, and religious laws, which were sometimes taught through stories.
The federal government opened a day school for Native American children shortly after the Hupa and Chilula were moved onto the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The school was very unpopular among Native parents; many refused to send their children there. In an effort to force school attendance, agents at one point withheld the government-issued clothing intended for reservation children. The school ended up closing after only a few years.
A boarding school was established on the reservation in 1893, but it, too, was unsuccessful. Funding was inadequate, help was scarce, and supplies were low. Many teachers quit. Those who stayed on treated the children poorly: students were beaten if they did not speak English, and some children were actually leased out to white families as servants.
The reservation is currently served by the Klamath-Trinity Unified School District, which operates schools in the area. There is a branch of the College of the Redwoods in nearby Hoopa, and Humboldt State University is located in the neighboring city of Arcata. In the early 2000s about 72 percent of the adults on the reservation had completed high school or some college.
Like many tribes the Hupa and Chilula believed that illnesses were caused by supernatural forces. A hired doctor was called in to treat and cure them.
The Chilula had two kinds of doctors: medicine healers, who treated patients with plants, and shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun), who had the ability to suck the ailment out of a sick person’s body. Both men and women served as doctors, but the more powerful shaman were usually men. The primary healing power came from language. A shaman could treat a person by speaking directly to his or her spirit with words that people did not understood. Sometimes the shaman prayed, danced, sang, and blew smoke over the patient. If the sick person did not recover or died shortly after treatment, the shaman refunded the payment for his services.
Shaman went through a long and difficult training period. The Chilula were considered the most skilled doctors in northwestern California. Chilula shaman trainees learned their trade at Dancing Doctor Rock, considered the tribe’s most sacred site. At this rock the shaman-in-training fasted, sang, danced, and looked for a vision from a spirit. Female shaman, though rare, always acquired their healing powers from Tan, the deer spirit.
In modern times the tribe is served by its own K’ima:w Medical Center and by a hospital located in the city of Hoopa. The K’ima:w Field Health and Outreach Department offers health screenings, home visits, health education, and community support services. A dental clinic and pharmacy are also available on the reservation.
The Hupa have always been well known for their elaborately decorated woven baskets depicting geometric figures in red, white, and black. Examples of Hupa baskets and dance costumes are on display at the Hupa Tribal Museum, a popular tourist destination. Other Hupa arts included designs carved into wooden mush paddles, horn spoons, and dentalium shells as well as articles made of bone.
The Hupa also had a distinctive singing style. Most music was sung with minimal accompaniment by wooden clappers, bone whistles, deerhoof rattles, and rarely drums. The first rhythm instruments were planks that musicians stamped on or kicked. Later they beat on a box covered with hide. This was used not only during singing, but to keep time during gambling songs. To court a woman, a Hupa man played a wooden flute.
The most popular subject of Hupa and Chilula stories centered on how the Immortals devised the way of life for the people to follow. Both adults and children also enjoyed humorous stories about a sly, supernatural figure called Coyote, who sometimes helped people, but more often caused trouble.
The Hupa tell this tale of Rough-nose, whose younger brother has been kidnapped by people from the world above. Rough-nose enlists the help of several animals who assist him in reaching that world to search for his brother.
Rough-nose caught a wood-rat and put it in his sack and then went with the rest.
When they reached the world above he said to the others, “You wait here, I will go along to the place where the fire is.” He changed himself into an old woman and walked with a widow’s cane. He came up to the place and said, “I am only asking that I may warm myself by your fire.” “You might be Rough-nose,” said the old woman who was tending the fire. “Oh, yes, that fellow is likely to come here,” said Rough-nose. Then the old woman ran up with a spruce tree in her hand, smashed it to pieces, and threw it on the fire. She commenced poking the bag in which the boy was hanging over the fire. “Tso, tso,” he cried. “You had better roast the short ribs,” she said. Rough-nose waited until he heard them eating in the house, then he caught the old woman and held her in the fire until she was dead. He stripped her clothes off and dressed himself in them. He went up to the sack and felt of his brother, who said, “Is that you Rough-nose?” “Speak softly,” said Rough-nose, and then he took the boy out and put the wood-rat in his place. Then someone put his head out of the door of the house and said, “Come and eat.” Roughnose putting only his head in, said, “Just throw something out here for me.” When he had eaten he went to the sack and began punching it. “Tso, tso,” it cried. “You better roast the short ribs,” said Rough-nose.
When the people had gone to bed, Rough-nose and his companions made an attack on them. All was confusion. It was dark. The fires had been put out. Some of them cried out, “My hair hurts.” Others were saying, “A mouse has chewed up my bowstring.” Others ran after the attacking party. When they jumped into their canoes to give chase they filled with water and sank. The mice had gnawed holes in them. Then Rough-nose, carrying his brother, went safely home.
Goddard, Pliny Earl. “Hupa Texts” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 1, 2 (March 1904). Available online at (accessed on September 3, 2007).
Quest for riches
Being wealthy was more important to the Hupa and their neighbors than to any other Native groups in California. Wealth was measured in terms of how much money a person had (they used shells for money, strung on cords and wound with strips of fish skin). Other prized possessions of the wealthy included deerskins (especially those of unusual colors) and the scalps of the red-feathered woodpecker (attached to buckskin bands). These valuable items were only used for very important purchases, such as a bride or the services of a healer. Other evidence of a person’s wealth were the site of the family home and the productivity of the fishing, hunting, and gathering places a person owned.
According to the Hupa belief system, everything that existed was a spiritual being, so a person who possessed many things would be able to harness the spirit power connected with those things. If the possessor offended the spirits, it was possible for those things—and the powers that went with them—to disappear.
Festivals and ceremonies
The two major religious ceremonies of the northwestern California Indians were the White Deerskin Dance and the Jump Dance, each of which could last up to sixteen days. Both dances were part of the World Renewal Cycle, held in late summer or early fall to ensure that natural resources would renew themselves, that life would go on as it always had, and that disasters would be averted or prevented. The Immortals laid down the exact words and order for the ceremonies, and these instructions were followed precisely. The White Deerskin and Jump dances offered major opportunities for wealthy people to display their riches. Ceremonial festivities included singing, gameplaying, storytelling, and, of course, dancing.
Lesser ceremonies—conducted in strategic locations—were also associated with the cycle. For example, a village near a salmon run would host a First Salmon Ceremony. Thousands of participants from villages throughout northwestern California would gather for it, and then they would move on to another village near acorn-hunting territory to take part in an Acorn Feast.
In the early 2000s these and other ceremonies were being held each year on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. All of them were open to the public. Modern additions to the ceremonial cycle included a Logging Show in May; the Whitewater Boat Race, held on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; the Hoopa Open Rodeo in June; a Fourth of July Celebration; the Coyote Run; the Bald Hill Climb; and tribe-sponsored softball and basketball tournaments. More recently the tribe has added an annual Sovereign Day Celebration to honor the day Congress recognized Hupa ownership their lands.
No special ceremony was observed for boys who reached puberty. The onset of a Hupa girl’s first menstrual period was a sacred time and was celebrated with a dance. First, the girl stayed in a secluded house for ten days, where she ate only acorn soup and salmon and bathed twice a day in a sacred pool. Her isolation provided her with time to think about the importance of cleanliness, independence, and patience. After the ten days were up, she was considered a woman.
The Chilula puberty rituals lasted five days. Girls stayed in their homes and avoided meat, salt, and cold water during their first menstruation. They did not touch their bodies absentmindedly, but used a bone scratcher whenever they had an itch. After the seclusion period, the tribe held a public dance.
Courtship and marriage
Girls were considered ready for marriage at age fifteen or sixteen, and boys were ready at sixteen or seventeen. Courtship was basically a business transaction. A boy’s family sent a representative to bargain with the girl’s family, and a generous price was negotiated. Following a feast and gift exchange, the newly married couple lived in the husband’s village. Poor young men might arrange a “half-marriage,” paying half-price for the bride and moving in with and working for her family.
The Immortals left a legacy of restrictions on the daily lives of the Hupa and Chilula; as a result, meditation and prayer accompanied most of their activities. Northwestern California Indians had a unique custom whereby men and women lived together only in the summer, even if they were married. Through the cold months and during the fall hunting season, men slept in sweathouses, and women stayed in the family home.
The birthing process
A pregnant woman avoided certain foods and offered prayers for an easy birth. When she was ready to have her baby, the mother-to-be went to the menstrual house to give birth; the father remained in the sweathouse. The newborn child was placed in a basket and held over steaming water that contained herbs; this ritual was thought to encourage the baby’s soul to enter its body.
After ten days of isolation, mother and child rejoined their family at home. The baby was placed sitting up in a cradle basket and, until it could walk, was allowed outside only for exercise and bathing. It was called “baby” or a similar impersonal name until receiving a real name at about age five.
The Hupa and Chilula differed in their treatment of the dead. The bodies of Hupa dead were disposed of quickly. They were tied to boards and buried in graves lined with planks to form boxes. Relatives were expected to wail, or cry, from the time of their loved one’s death until the burial process was completed. They also cut their hair, wore necklaces to ward off dreams of the dead, and were forbidden to speak the dead person’s name. The Hupa believed that the deceased’s spirit haunted the village for four days before journeying on to the land of the dead.
When a Chilula person died, they covered the body with a deerskin blanket, and it remained in the house for five days. A medicine man smoked the house with herbs to ward off evil. The gravedigger was required to observe strict codes, eating only acorn soup and dried salmon while preparing the grave. After being washed, painted, and supplied with acorns and tobacco, the body was buried with its head facing south. To avoid being haunted by the spirit of the dead, the mourners would say over the body: “You are going away from me. You must not think of me.” The dead person’s name could not be spoken for a full year.
Current tribal issues
Before the arrival of white settlers, the Hupa and Chilula lived in harmony with their surroundings, taking only what they needed. At the start of the twenty-first century several environmental organizations were battling with logging companies to prevent the destruction of the Chilula’s ancient redwood growing areas.
The Tsnungwe, Hupa people who live on the south fork of the Trinity River, filed a petition for federal recognition in the late 1990s. Without federal recognition, the Tsnungwe have no legal relationship with the U.S. government and are not entitled to any benefits (money and other assistance).
The 1988 passage by Congress of the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act created considerable controversy. It was supposed to settle a 25-year-old dispute between the Hupa and Yurok over timber rights. The Yurok, who live on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, claimed that they were entitled to share in the profits from the reservation’s old-growth Douglas fir, said to be among the most valuable trees of their kind in the world. Congress awarded timber rights to the Hupa. Under this act, too, Congress for the first time established membership standards determining who could be called a member of the Yurok tribe. Previously the matter of tribal membership had been left to the discretion of Native Americans.
David Risling (1921–2005), a Native American of Hupa, Yurok, and Karok descent and a champion of improved education, legal rights, and economic advancement for Native Americans, co-founded the California Indian Legal Services and the Native American Rights Fund. He grew up on the Hoopa Valley Reservation and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1939–45). Risling became director of the Native American Studies program at the University of California-Davis in 1970. In 1991 the university honored him with the Distinguished Public Service Award for his contributions to Native American education. He wrote and published the Handbook of Native American Studies and other books.
Hupa-Yurok George Blake (1944–) is a noted ceramist, painter, and carver. He was named a National Heritage fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1991.
Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Driver, Harold E., and Walter R. Goldschmidt. The Hupa White Deerskin Dance. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007.
Fletcher, Jill, and others, compilers. Now You’re Speaking Hupa! Arcata, CA: Humboldt State University, 1995.
Goddard, Pliny Earle. Life and Culture of the Hupa. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007.
Lake, Robert G. Chilula: People from the Ancient Redwoods. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982.
Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York: Bantam Books, 2005.
Davis, Susan E. “Tribal Rights, Tribal Wrongs (Hoopa, Yurok, and Congress).” In The Nation, 254, 11 (March 23, 1992): 376.
Goddard, Pliny Earl. “Hupa Texts.” University of California Publications: American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1, 2 (March 1904). Available online at (accessed on September 3, 2007).
Goddard, Pliny Earl. “Notes on the Chilula Indians of Northwestern California.” 1914. American Libraries Internet Archive. (accessed on September 3, 2007).
“The Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum Homepage.” Hoopa Tribal Museum and San Francisco State University. (accessed on September 3, 2007).
Hoopa Valley Tribe. (accessed on September 3, 2007).
“Hupa.” Four Directions Institute. (accessed on September 3, 2007).
“Hupa Indian Tribe.” Access Genealogy. (accessed on September 3, 2007).
Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California