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Indians belonging to three different cultures have dwelt during the historic period in the sections of Del Norte and Humboldt counties included in Redwood National Park. Because of the environment, these Indians, although belonging to different linguistic groups, developed closely related cultures. Living in villages, they relied on the rivers and forests for their livelihood.


1. The Villages

The most numerous tribe living in the area was the Yurok. An Algonkin people, the Yurok built their villages on the Klamath and near the Pacific beaches. The hinterland served the Yurok as an area for hunting deer, gathering acorns, beating in seeds, and collecting firewood or sweathouse kindling. There were about 55 villages. A few may have been inhabited from time to time, during the lifetime of a single individual or a group of relatives. Most of the Klamath villages were located on ancient river terraces, which decreased in elevation as one approached the mouth of the Klamath River. Wahsekw was 200 feet above the river, Kenek 100, Kepel 75, Ko'otep 35, Turip 25, and Wohkel 20. Coastal villages were either on a lagoon or at the mouth of a river. Although the Yurok did not hesitate to paddle their canoes out to sea, their "habits were formed on the river or still water." Their canoes were designed for rivers rather than to be launched through the surf. Fishing was done at the mouths of the watercourses, or by men standing in the edge of the surf, in preference to deep sea fishing.

The important villages were clustered. At the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity was the uppermost group, which in the 1850s had a population of about 200. Within or adjacent to the National Park, at the mouth of the Klamath, were Rekwoi and Wetkwau, with Tsekwetl, Pegwolau, and Keskitsa as quarters, and Tmeri and Otwego "somewhat doubtful as separate villages." According to one estimate, there were living in these villages in 1850 about 200 Yurok. The great fixed ceremonies were all held at populous clusters: Weitspus, Kepel Sa'a, Pekwan, Rekwoi, Wetlkwau, Orckw, and Opyuweg. Each had a sacred sweathouse. [1]

2. Population

A trader in 1852 took a census of the Klamath River towns from the salmon dam at Kepel to the mouth. He reported 17 villages with a population of 1,052, residing in 141 houses. Rekwoi had 22 houses with 116 inhabitants, Ho'pau six houses with 72 inhabitants, and Wohkel two houses and 15 people. [2] A. L. Kroeber utilizing this census, along with Colonel McKee's count at the Yurok villages, has estimated that there were about 2,500 Yurok in 1852.

A count made at the 17 lower Yurok villages in 1895 revealed 151 houses, or ten more than in 1852. But whereas there had been 1,052 Indians in 1851, there were only 384 living in 1895, and a number of these were mixed bloods. There were 141 men, 136 women, 55 boys, and 52 girls, or only about two and one-half persons per house—one-third of the ratio found 44 years before.

The majority of these 151 dwellings were built after the fashion of the white man. It was now customary for the Indians to have two kinds of houses—one American and one native. Several of the villages had all but disappeared. Ko'otep and Turip, which had been engulfed with mud in the great flood of 1861-62, had suffered the worst in this respect. Rekwoi, favored by the development of a trading post at Wohtekw-Wohkero, had increased from 22 to 30 houses by 1895. [3]

3. Customs

a. Blood Money

An American at Rekwoi hired several Yurok to transport stores from Crescent City. A canoe loaded with supplies foundered in the breakers at the mouth of the Klamath, and four of the Indians were drowned. Compensation was demanded. When it was not forthcoming, the American was ambushed and killed by the brother of one of the deceased. According to one version, the goods were government property, and the trader responsible only for their transportation. The Indians' claims are said to have been forwarded to Washington, but while the officials debated what to do, the Yurok, losing hope of a settlement, took revenge. [4]

b. Ownership of Fishing and Hunting Grounds

If several men jointly owned a fishing place, which was common, they used it in rotation for one or more days according to their share, relieving each other about the middle of the afternoon for 24-hour periods. If a man allowed another to fish at his place, he received the bulk of the catch. If only one salmon were taken, the "tenant" kept the tail.

It was forbidden to establish a new fishing place or to fish below a recognized one. This provision guaranteed the maintenance of the value of those in existence, and must have closely restricted the total number to those established by tradition and inheritance. [5]

Up to a mile or more from the river, all land of any value for hunting was privately owned. Farther inland, there were no claims, nor was there much hunting. [6] Free ferriage must be provided. The Yurok and their neighbors extended this right to Americans living among them, charging ferriage only to transients. [7]

c. War and Peace

No distinction of principle existed in the Yurok mind between murder and war. All wars were merely feuds that involved large groups of kinsmen, several such groups, or only unrelated fellow villagers. Whoever was not drawn into the war was careful to remain aloof as in a private quarrel. When peace came it was made on the only basis known: all damages were compensated. Every man slain or hurt was paid for according to his value, all captive women and children restored, burned property paid for, and seized property returned. It appears that payments for the aggregate amounts due were made by each side, instead of the lesser value being deducted from the greater and the net difference paid. This practice may have been dictated by the fact that Yurok money was not standardized, no two strings of dentalia were of exactly the same value. In any case, the greater financial drain bore on the victor.

The Yurok took no scalps. They did not bother to decapitate a fallen foe unless it was to make certain that he was dead. They held no scalp dance or formal victory celebration. They did have a war dance, however. Their chief weapon was the bow. In hand-to-hand fighting, a short club, spatula-shaped and blunt edged, was used for cracking heads. Spears were known, but seldom used. They had no shield, but had two types of body armor. [8]

During the war between the Yurok and Hupa in the 1830s, a war party of Hupa went out to attack Rekwoi in reprisal for a raid made by the Rekwoi and the Tolowa on the village of Takimitlding. They were joined by their kinsmen from the south fork of the Trinity and the Chilula. The warriors, 100 strong, descended the Klamath in boats, traveling at night and drawing their canoes up into the brush during the day. Rekwoi was attacked and burned, as Takimitlding had been. Those who were not slain had difficulty surviving through the winter, because their stores of food had been destroyed.

The Hupa and their allies returned as they had come. This illustrates the private nature of the quarrel. The canoes had to be laboriously poled and in some places dragged upstream. Had the Yurok possessed any national sentiment, they could have rallied several hundred fightingmen and overwhelmed the Hupa, while they were struggling with the river. As a matter of fact, the Yurok recalled, the villages along the Klamath made no effort to stop the war party. Scores now having been evened, a settlement was made. The Hupa sent to ask for a settlement, and when this took place, large amounts were paid as compensation by both belligerents. [9]

d. Ceremonies

Yurok ceremonies were aimed at renewing or maintaining the established world. There was a recitation of a "long formula, narrating, mostly in dialogue, the establishment of the ceremony by spirits of prehuman race" and its immediate beneficial effect. After the recitation a dance began, and went on every afternoon, or morning and afternoon, for five, ten, or more days. The dances were of two kinds, known to the Americans as the White Deerskin and Jumping Dances. There was a marked localism in the ceremonies, and the dances were conducted with a distinct attempt at climactic effect. [10]

The Deerskin dancers wore aprons of civet cat or deerskin about the waist, masses of dentalium necklaces, and forehead bands of wolf fur that shaded the eyes. From the head rose a stick on which was fastened two or four black and white eagle or condor feathers—so put together as to resemble a single feather of enormous length, its quill covered with woodpecker scalps—or three slender rods of sinew, scarlet, with attached bits of scalp, elevated from the stick. The dancers brandished poles on which were white, light gray, black, or mottled deerskins, the heads stuffed, the ears, mouths, throats, and false tongues decorated with woodpecker scalps, the hide of the body and legs hanging loose. [11]

The principal ornament work in the Jumping Dance was a buckskin band, tied over the forehead with the ends flapping. Its central portion was covered with 50 large woodpecker scalps, and bordered with lines of other feathers and strips of white fur from a deer's belly. [12]

Many years after he was stationed on the Klamath, Maj. Gen. George Crook recalled that the Yurok had a yearly ceremony on placing a weir in the river at Kepel, to catch salmon. It was one of the occasions when all the wealth was paraded. All of those who were present at the ceremony would have all past blood feuds erased. [13]

The weir was built in ten named sections by as many companies of men. Each group left an entrance, behind which was an enclosure. When salmon had run into these, the gates were shut, and the fish netted. [14]

A Jumping Dance was held annually in the autumn at Rekwoi. The climax was a dance made in two large canoes, which approached across the broad lagoon abreast. At Wetlkwau there was a sacred house and sweathouse. Each year, in April, the formulist and his assistant paraded to the mouth of the Klamath and speared a salmon. This was cooked on the beach, and the assistant attempted to eat the entire fish. If he succeeded, it was believed he would become very wealthy.

Wetlkwau also had a Deerskin Dance. It was an aftermath to the salmon rite. In this the competing villages were Turip, Rekwoi, and Wetlkwau. On the last day, they danced across the lagoon in boats and finished on the hill above Rekwoi. No one was allowed to witness the boat dance whose father's payment for his mother had not included either a canoe or one of the large Hudson's Bay Co. knives, which before 1850 were extremely valuable. [15]

The ghost dance craze reached the Yurok about 1872 via the Shasta, Karok, and Tolowa, but it lasted only a few years, and vanished with scarcely any effect. [16]

e. Superstitions.

The Yurok were superstitious. As General Crook recalled, everything that occurred could be blamed on a shaman. If a Yurok went hunting and failed to see any game, or if they saw some and failed to kill it, or if it rained while they were out, or if they lost something, they would declare that they had been bewitched, and they usually claimed to be able to identify the culprit. Crook, when he sought to reason with them and explained that the deer were not where they hunted, they would answer that "they saw so many deer there before, and they were there now, but someone had turned them into brush or rocks." [17]

4. Houses and Sweathouses

General Crook recalled in his Autobiography that the houses of the Yurok were built from large puncheon boards of redwood, which they had split with their rude implements. To build their dwellings, the Yurok excavated the earth to a depth of three to four feet, and positioned the puncheons on end, thus forming the walls of a hut. Their dwellings were either square or rectangular. The boards were battened to be quite tight. Roofs were made of the same material, and were in the fashion of a frontiersman's cabin. One side of the roof projected over the other, with a space between large enough to permit the smoke to escape. Doors were frequently cut into one large upright in the gable end of the structure, but more frequently were cut from the adjacent sides of two boards. The shape of the door way could be either round or oval. The fire was built on the ground, and in the center of the house. Some of the dwellings had boulders of a green stone, which through long usage were polished smooth from being used as chairs. [18]

The sweathouse was smaller than the dwelling and dug out over its entire length. The frontage was about 12 feet, the breadth nine to 11 feet, and the greatest height six or seven. The excavation was at least four feet deep. The longer sides were lined, but there were no walls above ground. The interiors were neat, the floor being paved either with well-adzed planks, or carefully selected and fitted slabs of stone. Except for a few block pillows, cut flatfaced from redwood with concave tops, there was no furniture. Somewhat toward one end from the middle was the sacred post, toward the other end the fireplace, a cubical hole of a foot and one-half, lined with flagstone. The door was in the middle of one of the long sides, and faced the water of the river or ocean. It was roundish, provided with a cover, and inside had a ladder with a few notched steps leading downward. A second door, used only as an exit, was at one of the small ends. [19]

5. Canoes

Both the Yurok and Tolowa had canoes which were similar to each other. They were dugouts, fashioned from redwood. While clumsy, they were symmetrical and carefully finished. They were seagoing, but the design was better calculated to navigate a rushing river full of boulders. The paddle was also for river use. It was a combination of a pushing and a sweeping instrument, a stout pole six to eight feet long, spreading below to a narrow, heavy blade, and used by standing men. Only the seated helmsman used a true canoe paddle. The canoes varied in breadth and beam, the largest having three times the capacity of the smallest, but the length was standardized at about 18 feet. A longer craft would be disadvantageous among the rocks. [20]

6. Food from the Land, Rivers, and Ocean

The Yurok and their neighbors "ate very largely of the acorn," the staple food of most California Indians; but fish, principally salmon, constituted a greater proportion of their food than was usual elsewhere. Small game was scarce in their territory, and while deer were abundant and their flesh esteemed, they "seem hardly to have formed part of the daily food supply." Nevertheless, General Crook considered the Yurok excellent hunters. Bulbs were dug in early summer; seed were gathered on the ridge top prairies. Salt was secured from seaweed. The people of the coast secured large ocean mussels. The stranding of a whale was always a significant occasion, sometimes causing quarrels. The Yurok prized its flesh above all other food, and carried dried slabs of the meat inland, but they never hunted the huge mammals. [21]

Salmon runs occurred on the Klamath in the spring and fall. These were the periods of the great ceremonies, whether or not they referred directly to the fish. Because of its great flow, there were few weeks when some variety of salmon were not running. Fish were taken with dip nets, seines, set gill nets, and harpoons. The dip net, or lifting net, was let down from a scaffold built out over the water, nearly always at an eddy or back water. Here the fishermen sat on a block or small stool, holding the bone button of the string which closed the entrance to the cone-shaped net stretched out in the current. This net was hung from the bottom of a long A-shaped frame with a bottom crossbar. The whole was hauled out as soon as a pull on the cord had enclosed a salmon, which was then hit on the head with a club. A single night's operation sometimes produced a hundred salmon. At other times, a man would sit for half a day without netting one.

Lampreys were much prized by the Yurok for their grease. They, as well as sturgeon, were taken in the same manner, but with a net of a different mesh.

Both salmon and lampreys were split for drying. Most of the fish were smoked and packed in old baskets as strips or slabs. Surf fish were sun dried whole and hung from poles in rows.

A long net was sometimes set for sturgeon. One that was measured had a six-inch mesh, a width of three feet, and a length of 85 feet, but in use was doubled over, making it to appear half that length and width. The nets were made of two-ply cordage, rolled without tools from fibers of the Iris macrosiphon leaf. The salmon harpoon had a slender shaft, sometimes in excess of 20 feet in length. To this were then attached two slightly diverging foreshafts, one a few inches longer, on which were set loose barbs of pitched and wrapped bone or horn.

Sea lion hunters took station on rocks, disguised in bear or deerskins. When the mammals clambered into view, the hunters barked and twisted their bodies, attracting the animals' attention as they approached, then leaping up they harpooned them. The toggle head had two barbs in a row; the line was fastened to the shaft. No attempt was made to hold the powerful beast, but it was followed by a boat, the shaft regained, and at the first opportunity the animal was speared again. [22]

7. Crook Describes the Indians at the Mouth of the Klamath

General Crook has described better than any other writer, the scene at the mouth of the Klamath and some of the activities of the Yurok. The distance from bluff to bluff at the mouth of the Klamath is over a mile. Heavy breakers from the ocean striking the current of the river have thrown up a sandbar the full distance between bluffs. The channel of the Klamath cuts its way through the bar and discharges into the ocean. Sometimes a violent storm would close the pass, and the river would cut a new one, which was from one-fourth to one-half mile wide. Consequently the channel meandered backwards and forwards.

On these bluffs were two villages. The one on the left bank was Wetlkwau and the one on the opposite bluff Rekwoi. From their villages the Yurok had a commanding view of the beaches. Crook then a lieutenant, frequently took position on the rocks and shot sea lions as the tide was flooding. The surf was usually heavy, so Crook had to shoot the beasts in the head or neck to kill them.

The Indians from both villages would keep a sharp watch, and as soon as one of the animals appeared, they would break for the beach. The men were armed with saw blades, with a handle about one-third of the distance from one of the ends. The women carried their baskets supported by headstraps, and the children came along to see the fun. While the women and children looked on, the men hacked and sawed away with their knives, and when a piece was cut loose, they would toss it over their heads to be caught by one of the women. Into the basket it would go. Pandemonium ruled. All were shouting, quarreling, jostling, and trying to crowd one another away from the carcass. After the animal had been cut up, they would quiet down, and talk and joke about the good time they had had. Some of them had serious gashes on their hands and arms, but they seemed to take it all as a good joke. At first Crook believed they were fighting, but when he understood what was happening, he "enjoyed the joke as much as they did." [23]

8. Government and Wealth

The Yurok had a patriarchal form of government. There were no chiefs beyond the heads of families. Influence was dependent on wealth, which "consisted of . . . large woodpecker scalps with the upper mandible attached, and these would be sewn on a nice piece of buckskin dressed white." They likewise valued a long, conical shell found in Queen Charlotte Sound, which they called Ali-cachuck. These shells were similar to the wam-pum of the eastern woodland Indians. Obsidian in large, knife-shaped pieces was valuable, but "a white deer skin would take all an Indian had. He would sell his own soul for one," Crook recorded. [24]

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004