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ETHNONYMS: Arra-Arra, Ehnek, Karuk, Pehtsik, Quoratem


Identification, The Karok are an American Indian group located in northern California. The name "Karok" is from karuk, "upriver," by contrast with the name "Yurok" for a neighboring tribe, from yuruk, "downriver." The Karok's name for themselves is simply "'Araar," (human being). "Karuk" is now the official name for the tribe.

Location. Aboriginally, the Karok lived along the Klamath River in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, northwestern California, and on the tributary Salmon River. Since the nineteenth century, Karok have also lived in Scott Valley, farther east in Siskiyou County. The region is characterized by steep forested slopes and a moderate climate, with abundant fish, game, and plant foods.

Demography. The aboriginal Karok population was estimated at 2,700 in 1848. In 1930, the U.S. Census reported 755 people of Karok descent. In 1972, the state of California identified 3,781 individuals of at least partly Karok ancestry.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Karok language is not closely related to any other language, but may be distantly related to other languages of California that have been classified as Hokan.

History and Cultural Relations

The Karok have lived on the middle course of the Klamath River for as long as we know, in close contact with the Yurok downstream, and with the Hupa on the tributary Trinity River. These groups shared most elements of a culture typical of northwestern California, with relationships to the Pacific Northwest cultural area of coastal Oregon and Washington. The Karok had little contact with Whites until gold miners arrived in 1850 and 1851, resulting in widespread disease, violence, social dislocation, and cultural breakdown. By 1972, however, ceremonials were being revived, and there were renewed prospects for the preservation of Karok identity.


Since aboriginal times, the Karok have lived on small areas of flat land, locally called "river bars," which border the Klamath River. Families were grouped into villages, some of which have become modern communities such as Orleans and Happy Camp. Transportation was formerly via river canoe or overland trails. Certain larger villages, such as Orleans, served as ceremonial centers for villages upriver and downriver from them. At present the Karok live either in the towns or on individual homesteads. The "living house," one per family, and the sweat house, which served as a men's clubhouse and dormitory for a whole community, were the major structures. Traditional houses were semisubterranean; modern Karok usually live in wood frame houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The aboriginal Karok subsisted by fishing, hunting, and gathering wild plant foods; the only cultivated crop was tobacco. Salmon, whose yearly upriver runs were the basis of ceremonial activity, were generally caught in nets from platforms on the riverbank. The prize game was deer, the hunting of which was also encompassed by ritual activities. The major plant food was the acorn of the tanbark oak prepared by cracking, drying, and grinding to flour, and then leaching to remove the bitter flavor of tannic acid. The resulting dough was diluted and boiled by placing it with heated rocks in a large basket to make "acorn mush" or "acorn soup." Hazel twigs and pine roots were used in basketry. Present-day Karok still fish and hunt, and occasionally make acorn soup. Subsistence is difficult for many modern Karok, as agriculture, industry, and tourism are very limited in the area where they live. In aboriginal times, the dog was the only domestic animal. After White contact, horses, cattle, pigs, and cats became familiar parts of Karok life.

Industrial Arts. The principal art of the aboriginal Karok was basketry, practiced by the women; baskets were woven so tightly they held water. Much care was lavished on intricate decorative designs, woven as overlays. Men carved wood with stone tools, producing storage boxes and household objects, and they carved various utensils from soapstone, horn, and shell. Obsidian was chipped to make knives and arrowheads; large blades of chipped obsidian were prized wealth objects. In modern days, basketry survived for a time, but is in danger of extinction. There are no current sales of Karok art to tourists.

Trade. Aboriginal trade was of minor importance, since most commodities were available locally. But the Karok traded with the downstream Yurok for redwood dugout canoes, for ornamental shells, and for edible seaweed. The principal Indian money was dentalium shells, which originated in British Columbia, but circulated among many tribes as a medium of exchange, with larger shells important in displays of wealth.

Division of Labor. Men hunted, fished, and carved, while women gathered plant resources and wove baskets. Strict taboos forbade female contact with men engaged in hunting and fishing.

Land Tenure. In aboriginal times, individual families owned the land closest to the river where they lived and had rights to particular fishing sites on the river. Hunting and gathering lands were used communally. The Karok are one of the few tribes in California for whom reservation land was never set aside. Most of Karok territory today is national Forest land, with some plots owned privately either by Indians or by Whites.


Kin Groups and Descent. The aboriginal Karok recognized no social groups other than the family, within which descent was patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. The basic terms father, mother, son, and daughter are used without extensions of meaning. Grandparents and grandchildren are designated by three reciprocal terms: male grandrelative through a woman (mother's father or daughter's son), female grandrelative through a woman, and grandrelative through a man. Siblings are distinguished as male and female, older and younger. There is a complex set of terms referring to deceased relatives, and another for relatives through a deceased personcorresponding to a taboo on reference to the dead.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In aboriginal times, marriage was largely a financial transaction: the bridegroom struck a bargain with the bride's father, and the prestige of a family depended on how much money had been paid for the wife. If a man could not pay a full bride-price, he could become "half married"that is, go to live with and work for his father-in-law. Monogamy was the norm; however, a widow was expected to marry either her husband's brother or her sister's husband, and this could result in polygyny. The newly married couple lived in the husband's parents' home. Later a husband might acquire his own house, usually adjacent to that of his parents. Either partner could seek a divorce on grounds of unfaithfulness or incompatibility; the central process was a repayment of money, with negotiation of the amount depending on the number of children.

Domestic Unit. Small extended families commonly shared a house or a group of adjacent houses.

Inheritance. The bulk of an estate was divided among a man's sons, with smaller shares to daughters and other relatives.

Socialization. From around three years old, male children left the family living house to sleep with adult males in the sweat house, where they were indoctrinated in the virtues of thrift and industry, and taught fishing, hunting, and ritual. Girls remained in the living house, learning female skills from their mothers. The recitation of myths, typically by grandparents in the family house on winter nights, was another important means of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. No formal distinctions of social class were recognized by the Karok, although prestige was associated with wealth.

Political Organization. There was no formal political organization, either for villages or the Karok as a whole; the group can be delineated only by its shared language and habitat. In keeping with the general prestige associated with wealth, however, individuals and families who were considered rich tended to be regarded as community leaders. Tribal names were used to identify neighboring peoples such as the Yurok and Hupa, but the Karok had no name for themselves other than "'Araar" (people). After White contact, the U.S. government failed for over a century to recognize the Karok as a tribe. It was not until the 1970s that federal recognition was obtained; a tribal headquarters now exists at Happy Camp.

Social Control. Behavior was regulated by the set of values that tribal members shared, and no crimes against the tribe or community were recognized. Instead, undesirable behavior was interpreted as either (1) transgression against the supernatural, by the breaking of taboos, which would bring retribution to the wrongdoer in the form of bad luck, or (2) transgression against private persons or property, which would have to be paid for through indemnities to the offended individuals or families. If one refused to pay, he would likely be killed by the offended party; and this killing could in turn result either in immediate compensation or in further feuding between the families concerned until a final settlement was negotiated.

Conflict. What is sometimes called "war" among the Karok refers to the feuding described above, expanded to involve fellow villagers of the aggrieved parties. Such feuds could be settled with the help of a paid go-between. When a financial settlement was reached, opposing parties would face each other and do an armed "war dance" while singing songs to insult the other side. If this did not provoke a renewal of violence, then the settlement would conclude with a breaking of weapons. Following White contact, the Karok suffered greatly in clashes with miners, settlers, and soldiers, but there was no organized warfare. At the present time, White policy toward the Karok is mainly one of "benign neglect." Differences of opinion among the modern Karok themselves are associated with the degree of adherence to traditional values, but there are no sharp dividing lines.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. No creation myth has been recorded for the Karok; however, many myths relate the deeds of the 'ikxareeyavs, a prehuman race which ordained the characteristics of the present world. At a certain moment, the human species came spontaneously into existence, and at the same time the 'ikxareeyavs were transformed into prototypes of the animals and plants that now exist (and, in some cases, into geographical features or disembodied spirits). In an especially large and popular class of myths, Coyote ordains the principal features of human culture, but is at the same time trickster and buffoon. The recitation of certain myths and the singing of associated songs were believed to confer magical success in hunting, gambling, and love. Following White contact, many Karok became Christians, at least nominally; but native beliefs survived underground and have surfaced in the Present-day revival of interest in ritual and shamanism.

Religious Practitioners. Annual ceremonies were presided over by priests, with their male and female assistants; these positions were not permanent, but were assigned each year by community consensus. Shamans were of two types: (1) the "sucking doctor," usually female, who used a spirit helper to extract disease objects from the bodies of patients, and (2) the "herb doctor," of either sex, who administered herbal medicine along with recitation of magical formulas. Finally, some individuals (of either sex) were believed to have secret powers of witchcraft, which they could use maliciously to make their neighbors sicken and die; these witches were greatly feared.

Ceremonies. The principal Karok rites concerned "renewing the world" and ensuring its stability between annual observances. These were correlated with the seasonal availability of major food resources such as salmon and acorns and involved ritual activity by priests and priestesses, along with feasting, display of wealth, and dancing to the accompaniment of songs. Best known is the autumn Deerskin Dance, when the skins of albino deer were displayed as wealth objects. Less important were the Brush Dance, held to cure a sick child; the Kick Dance, to initiate a sucking doctor; and the Flower Dance, celebrating a girl's first menstruation. In modern times, the Brush Dance has survived partly as a social and recreational function; and since the 1970s, the autumn ceremony of world renewal, with its Deerskin Dance, has been performed in several traditional sites.

Arts. Singing was considered to have magical poweras an accompaniment to ceremonial dances, as an interpolation in the recitation of myths and magical formulas, and as an accompaniment to gambling. The recitation of myths itself was of considerable ritual importance. Visual arts were limited to body ornamentation (important in ceremonies) and basketry design. In modern times, knowledge and interest continue particularly in Brush Dance songs and performance.

Medicine. The two major types of aboriginal shamanism have been described above. It was believed that serious illness was usually caused by a supernatural "pain" or disease object, lodged in the patient's body. In children, illness could also be caused by wrongdoing on the part of a family member; when the shaman elicited a public confession, the child would recover. Shamans' fees were paid before treatment, but had to be refunded if the patient died. Since White contact, native medical practice has declined in importance, but nowadays some interest exists in reviving it.

Death and Afterlife. The bodies of the dead were buried with the observance of many taboosfor example, mourners were forbidden to engage in hunting, gathering, basket making, travel, sex, or gambling. After five days, the spirit of the deceased was believed to go to the sky, where an especially happy place was reserved for rich people and ceremonial leaders. If anyone in a community wished to sponsor a dance within a year after someone's death, the mourners had to be paid an indemnity. Uttering the name of a dead person was a serious insult; whether done deliberately or by accident, it had to be compensated by payments to the survivors.


Bright, William (1957). The Karok Language. University of California Publications in Linguistics, no. 13. Berkeley.

Bright, William (1978). "Karok." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 180-189. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). "The Karok." In Handbook of the Indians of California. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 78, 98-108. Washington, D.C.

Kroeber, Alfred L., and Edward W. Gifford (1980). Karok Myths. Berkeley: University of California Press.