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Impearls: HIC 1.2: Quality of Civilization

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Quality of Civilization   by A. L. Kroeber

In inventions there was no marked superiority to the remainder of aboriginal California; but most arts were carried to a distinctive pitch.  Manufactured articles were better finished.  Many objects which the central and southern Californians fashioned only as bare utility demanded were regularly decorated with carvings in the northwest.  Often the identical object was made of wood in one region and of antler or stone in the other.  A new technical process is scarcely superadded by such a substitution.  As regards the mere list of knowledges or faculties, the two cultures remain at par.  But the northwestern preference for the more laborious material evidences a different attitude, an appreciation of values which in the ruder central and southern tracts is disregarded.  That this difference is deep seated, and that it is manifest at almost every point, is evident when the slab house of the Miwok and Yuki, the canoe or maul of the Modoc, the pipe or acorn stirrer of the Pomo, the netting shuttle and spoon of the Maidu, or the obsidian blade of the Wintun, are set by the side of the corresponding utensils of the Yurok or their northwestern neighbors.  It is only among the far-away Chumash that technological activities were granted a similar interest and love; and this localized southern culture has long since perished so completely as to make a comparative evaluation difficult.

The implements that are made only in the northwest — the stool, pillow, box, purse, and the like — are not very numerous.  They are at least partly balanced by central and southern devices which the northwesterners lack; and they do not in any instance involve a process or mechanical faculty of which the more typical Californians are wholly ignorant.
 

Much the same holds of wealth.  Money is prized and establishes influence everywhere in California.  It certainly counts for more in private and public life among the average Californian people than among the tribes of the plains or the settled and unsettled tribes of the southwestern United States.  But whatever its influence in southern or middle California, that influence is multiplied among the Yurok.  Blood money, bride purchase, compensation to the year's mourners before a dance can be held, are institutions known to almost every group described in the present work.  The northwesterners alone have measured the precise value of every man's life or wife or grief.  Every injury, each privilege or wrong or trespass, is calculated and compensated.  Without exactly adjusted payment, cessation of a feud is impossible except through utter extirpation of one party, marriage is not marriage but a public disgrace for generations, the ceremony necessary to the preservation of the order of the world is not held.  The consequence is that the Yurok concerns his life above all else with property.  When he has leisure, he thinks of money; if in need, he calls upon it.  He schemes constantly for opportunity to lodge a claim or to evade an obligation.  No resource is too mean or devious for him to essay in this pursuit.

If such endeavors are to be realized, there are needed an accurately computable scheme of economic valuation, and an elaborate and precise code of rights.  The northwesterner has both.  His law is of the utmost refinement.  A few simple and basic principles are projected into the most intricate subtleties; and there is no contingency which they do not cover.  The central Californian has his law also.  But it is neither rigid nor ramified.  Margin is left for modification according to personality or circumstance or public opinion.  There are phases of life in central California into which neither money nor legality enter.

With all this savoring so strongly of Kwakiutl and Haida custom, the Yurok is wholly Californian in his lack of any visible symbolism to give emotional expression to the economic values which are so fundamental with him.  He is without crests or carvings or totems; there are no separately designated social classes, no seats in order of rank, no titles of precedence, no named and fixed privileges of priority.  His society follows the aims of the societies of the North Pacific coast with the mechanism of the societies of middle California.

Property and rights pertain to the realm of the individual, and the Yurok recognizes no public claim and the existence of no community.  His world is wholly an aggregation of individuals.  There being no society as such, there is no social organization.  Clans, exogamic groups, chiefs or governors, political units, are unrepresented even by traces in northwestern California.  The germinal, nameless political community that can be traced among the Indians of the greater part of the State is absent.  Government being wanting, there is no authority, and without authority there can be no chief.  The men so called are individuals whose wealth, and their ability to retain and employ it, have clustered about them an aggregation of kinsmen, followers, and semidependents to whom they dispense assistance and protection.  If a man usually marries outside the village in which he lives, the reason is that many of his coinhabitants normally happen to be blood relatives, not because custom or law or morality recognize the village as a unit concerned with marriage.  The actual outcome among the Yurok may, in the majority of cases, be the same as among the nations consciously organized on an exogamic plan.  The point of view, the guiding principles both of the individual's action and of the shaping of the civilization, are wholly nonexogamic.  Such familiar terms as “tribe,” “village community,” “chief,” “government,” “clan,” can therefore be used with reference to the Yurok only after extreme care in previous definition — in their current senses they are wholly inapplicable.
 

Shamanism takes on a peculiar aspect in northwestern California in that the almost universal American Indian idea of an association between the shaman and certain spirits personally attached to him is very weakly and indirectly developed.  Shamanistic power resides in control of “pains,” small animate objects, nonanimal and nonhuman in shape, which on the one hand cause illness by entering the bodies of men, and on the other endow the shaman with power when he brings them to reside within himself, or rather herself, for practically all shamans are women.  The witch or poisoner is usually a man and operates by magic rather than shamanistic faculty.  In the remainder of California the distinction between the maker and the curer of disease is almost effaced, the shaman being considered indifferently malevolent or beneficent according to circumstances, but operating by the exercise of the same powers.

Concepts relating to magic are as abundantly developed among the Yurok and their neighbors as shamanism is narrowed.  Imitative magic is particularly favored and is often of the most crudely direct kind, such as performing a simple action or saying the desired thing over and over again.  The thousand and one occasions on which magic of this rather bare volitional type is employed reveal a tensity that usually seems brought on consciously.  This emotional tautness, which contrasts glaringly with the slack passivity and apathetic sluggishness of the average California Indian, is manifest in other matters.  Thus, restraint and self-control in manner and in relations with other men are constantly advocated and practiced by the Yurok.

Northwestern religion is colored by the cultural factors already enumerated.  The idea of organization being absent, there are no cult societies or initiations.  Symbolism is an almost unknown attitude of mind except in matters of outright magic: therefore masks, impersonations, altars, and sacred apparatus, as such, are not employed.  The tangible paraphernalia of public ceremony are objects that possess a high property value — wealth that impresses, but nevertheless profane and negotiable wealth.  The dances are displays of this wealth as much as they are song and step.  All life being individualized instead of socialized, the ceremonies attach to specified localities, much as a fishing place and an individual's right to fish are connected.  In the remainder of California, where stronger communal sense exists, the precise location of the spot of the dance becomes of little moment in comparison with the circumstances of the ceremony.

The esoteric element in northwestern dances and rites of public import has as its central feature the recitation of a formula.  This is not a prayer to divinities, but a narrative, mostly in dialogue, recounting the effect of an act or a series of acts, similar to those about to be performed, by a member of an ancient, prehuman, half-spirit race.  The recital of this former action and its effect is believed to produce the identical effect now.  The point of view is distinctly magical.  Similar formulas are used for the most personal purposes: luck in the hunt, curing of sickness, success in love, the accumulation of wealth.  These formulas are private property; those spoken at public ceremonials are no exception: their possessor must be paid, though he operates for the good of all.

Yurok mythology is woven in equally strange colors.  Stirring plot is slighted; so are the suspense of narrative, the tension of a dramatic situation — all the directly human elements which, however rude their development, are vividly present in the traditions of most of the Californians and many other divisions of American Indians.  A lyric, almost elegiac emotion suffuses the northwestern myths and tales.  Affection, homesickness, pity, love of one's natal spot, insatiable longing for wealth, grief of the prehuman people at their departure before the impending arrival of mankind, are sentiments expressed frequently and often with skill.  Events and incidents are more baldly depicted, except where the effect of the action recounted is the establishment of an existing practice or institution; and in these cases the myth is often nearly indistinguishable from a magical formula.  Tales that will interest a child or please a naïve stranger of another civilization do not appeal to the Yurok, who have developed refinedly special tastes in nearly everything with which they concern themselves.



1 comments:  (End
(Perma)  On Monday, December 4, 2006 at 11:47:00 AM GMT, Blogger Yahya wrote:   
How unexpected, to find such an individualistic society in aboriginal America as the Yurok! As Kroeber wrote: 'Such familiar terms as “tribe,” “village community,” “chief,” “government,” “clan,” can therefore be used with reference to the Yurok only after extreme care in previous definition — in their current senses they are wholly inapplicable.' One wonders how such a collection of individuals could manage to provide adequately for their own needs, without any institutions or conscious feelings of reciprocity, cooperation or, towards the weak, charity.

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