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Impearls: HIC 1.3: Radius and focus of the civilization

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Radius and focus of the civilization   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok shared this civilization in identical form with their neighbors, the Hupa and the Karok.  The adjacent Tolowa, Wiyot, and Chilula adhere to the same culture in every essential trait, but begin to evince minor departures in the direction of less intensive specialization.  A peripheral series of tribes — the Shasta, Konomihu, Chimariko, Whilkut, and Nongatl — show the loss of a number of characteristic northwestern features as well as some elements of culture that are clearly due to the example of exterior peoples.  To the south the diminution of the northwestern cultural forces can be traced step by step through the Sinkyone and Lassik until the last diluted remnants are encountered among the Wailaki.  The next group, the Kato, belong wholly within the civilization of central California.  The progressive change from Hupa to Kato is particularly impressive in view of the fact that all members of the chain are of common Athabascan speech.

To the north a similar transition into another civilization could presumably have once been followed.  But the societies of southwestern Oregon have long since perished, and the information about them is only sufficient to show the close similarity of the Takelma and Athabascans of Rogue River to the Yurok, and their civilizational inferiority.  Southwestern Oregon was culturally dependent on northwestern California.

Eastward, similarities to the northwestern culture appear for considerable distances — almost across the breadth of the State and into the northernmost Sierra Nevada.  These are, however, highland tracts of rather thin populations, to whom the typical culture of central California could not easily penetrate in full form, so that they were left open to random influences from all sides.

Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the institutions of northwestern type among the Yana, Achomawi, and mountain Maidu can be ascribed to specific northwestern influences.  Most of the cultural characteristics common to northwestern and northeastern California appear to have been found also in Oregon for some distance north.  To ascribe to the Yurok or Karok any definite share in the formation of modern Achomawi civilization would therefore be a one-sided view.  The whole of the tract embracing northernmost California and western, or at least southwestern, Oregon is in some respects a larger but ultimate cultural unit.  Within this unit, groups of peripheral position like the Achomawi have acquired only the more rudimentary elements and generic institutions, which they have further mingled with elements derived in perhaps larger proportion from central California and in some measure even from plateau or plains sources, not to mention minor institutions of local origin.  Centrally situated nations like the Yurok, on the other hand, have kept the original cultural supply in less adulterated form, and in building upon it have exerted an expansive influence on their neighbors and through them on peoples beyond.

Useful as the recognition of culture areas is as a scaffolding or preliminary plan for the student, the conditions in this region corroborate wholly the realization which has been gradually arrived at through investigations of civilization in many other parts of America, namely, that the exact delineation of such ethnographic provinces is almost invariably an artificial and unprofitable endeavor.  It is the foci that can be tolerably determined, not the limits; the influences that are of significance, rather than the range of the influences.

Such a focus, in some measure for all northernmost California and southwestern Oregon, and absolutely for northwestern California, is constituted by the Yurok, the Hupa, and the Karok.

Even as between these three little peoples of such close interrelations, some precedence of civilizational intensity, a slight nucleolus within the nucleus, can be detected; and the priority must be accorded to the Yurok.

Geographical and populational considerations would lead to such an anticipation.  The Yurok live on the united Klamath, the Hupa and Karok on its two arms, the Trinity and the unaugmented Klamath above the Trinity.  The numbers of the Yurok were as great as those of the two other groups combined.  Of the tribes of the second order or degree of participation in the civilization, the Tolowa, Wiyot, and Chilula, all three were adjacent to the Yurok, one only to the Hupa, none to the Karok.  The canoe can be made, in the perfected type, only of the redwood, a tree that grows, within the habitat of the three focal peoples, only in Yurok territory; and in fact the Hupa and Karok buy their boats from the Yurok.  The same tree also furnishes the best material for the lumber of which the houses of the region are built.

Actual cultural evidences are slight but confirmatory.  Throughout California it appears that adolescence ceremonies having direct reference to physiological functions are not only relatively but absolutely more elaborated among tribes of a ruder and more basic civilization.  Groups that have developed other ceremonial institutions to a considerable pitch actually curtail or dwarf this rite.  The Yurok make distinctly less of it than either Karok or Hupa.  The great ceremonies so characteristic of the region are, however, most numerous among them.  The Hupa perform these rituals in two or three towns, the Karok in four, and the Yurok in seven.  The elimination of animals as characters in traditional tales is a distinction of the pure northwestern culture.  The Yurok are more extreme in this respect than are the Karok.  Both Karok and Hupa agree with the larger nation in placing the birth of their culture hero at the Yurok village of Kenek.

Slender as are these indications, they all point the same way.  They justify the conclusion that the innermost core of northwestern civilization is more nearly represented by the Yurok than by any other group.  Even in a wider view, the center of dispersal — or concentration — of this civilization might be described as situated at the confluence of the Trinity and Klamath, from which the three tribes stretch out like the arms of a huge Y.  This spot is Yurok territory.  It is occupied by the village of Weitspus, now called Weitchpec, and its suburbs.  Either here or at some point in the populous 20 miles of river below must the precise middle of the cultural focus be set, if we are to attempt to draw our perspective to its finest angle.

Of course, it can not be contended that the whole of the northwestern civilization, or even all its topmost crests, flowed out from this sole spot.  Even an Athenian or a Roman metropolis at its height never formulated, much less originated, all of the culture of which it was the representative; and the California Indians were far from knowing any metropoles.  It might well be better, in a search such as has occupied us a moment ago, to think of the finally determined location as a point of civilizational gathering rather than radiation.  But where most is accumulated, most must also be given out.  The difference in cultural potence between upper and lower Yurok, between Yurok and Karok, must have been slight.  For every ten ideas or colorings of ideas that emanated from the exact center at least nine must have filtered into it; and even toward remoter regions, the disproportion can hardly have been excessive.  As regards any given single item of culture, it would be nearly impossible to assert with confidence where its specific development had taken place.  The thing of moment, after all, is not the awarding of precedence to this or that group of men or little tract of land, but the determination of the civilization in its most exquisite form, with an understanding, so far as may be, of its coming into being.  It is this purpose that has been followed, it may seem deviously, through the balancings of the preceding pages; and the end having been attained so far as seems possible in the present state of knowledge, it remains to picture the civilization as accurately as it can be pictured through the medium of the institutions, the thoughts, and the practices of the Yurok.

It may be added, as a circumstance not without a touch of the climactic in the wider vista of native American history, and as an illustration of principles well recognized in ethnology, that three of the great families of the continent are represented at the point of assemblage of this civilization.  The Yurok are Algonkins, the Karok Hokans, the Hupa Athabascans.



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