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Impearls: HIC 1.7: Political and national sense

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Political and national sense   by A. L. Kroeber

The national horizon of the Yurok was as confined as that of most northern Californians.  Adjacent tribes were visited at ceremonies and to some extent wives were purchased from them.  Of those next beyond, there was only the dimmest knowledge; and farther, neither rumor nor legend nor interest.  At that distance, there was only the end of the world, or a strange unsighted ocean, and perhaps things that no one wanted to see.  The Yurok did not venture into the unknown and felt no desire to.  Nor did they welcome strangers.  If any came, it must be for a bad purpose; and they were put out of the way at the first opportunity.  A man of substance, wealth, or character did not stray or nose about.  He remained at home in dignity, or traveled where relatives of old or hereditary friends welcomed him.  If ever he went farther, it was with their introduction.  An old man of Pekwan, born there of a Tolowa mother from Kohpei, a man of property and many formulas, had traveled in his lifetime as far as Tolowa Eshpeu; Karok Kumawer, not quite as far as sacred Inam, below Happy Camp; and in Wiyot territory to Eureka.  The county seat and its fairs drew him to the latter.  Before the white man came he would probably not have passed beyond the mouth of Mad River.

It is essential to bear in mind that since there was no definite community sense within a village, there was no opportunity for a larger or political community to develop out of a group of adjacent villages.  One settlement in such a group — a “suburb” — was sometimes involved in a feud while another directly across the river looked on.  Of course, wherever kinship existed, it formed a definite bond between towns as within them; but however instrumental blood relationship may sometimes become as a means of political organization, it is not in itself productive of a political sense; and the replacement of the latter by a feeling of kinship or personal relation among people like the Yurok is precisely what makes it necessary to distinguish the two if this peculiar society is to be understood.

It is true that Wahsekw danced against Weitspus, and played against it at shinny, and that under threat of attack from a remote and consolidated alien foe, village might adhere to village in joint war, just as, in lesser feuds, town mates, impelled by bonds of association or imperiled by their common residence, would sometimes unite with the group of individuals with whom the feud originated.  But these are occasions such as draw neighbors together the world over, be they individuals, districts, or nations.  While they are capable of being utilized in the formation of civic units, they do not in themselves constitute the associated bodies into political societies.

There is one recorded instance of larger community rights.  If a whale came ashore anywhere between Atlau, south of Osegen, and Tsotskwi-hipau, south of Dry Lagoon, it belonged to Espau, Orekw, and Tsahpekw jointly, each man taking a cut a half-fathom wide, the rich men a full fathom.  This is analogous to a recognition, probably prospective rather than ever actual, that Little River (or perhaps a certain other stream in the vicinity) marked the point beyond which a stranded whale was wholly in Wiyot ownership; to the north thereof the property of the Yurok of Tsurau (including Metskwo); whereas if it drifted to shore across the mouth of the stream, it was shared by the two groups.  The Big Lagoon villages probably held corresponding rights for the intervening stretch of coast, and the Rekwoi-Wetlkwau the privilege on another stretch of beach to the north.  But a whale was an infrequent and uncontrollable event, a half winter's provisions, and yet not so wholly sporadic that definite custom was unable to crystallize about it.  There is no instance of a similar law as regards fishing rights on the river, hunting territories, and acorn and seed tracts; all of which were individual or family property and not community rights.  Fish dams, intercommunally erected for brief periods at Kepel, at Lo'olego above Weitspus, and on Redwood Creek at Orau at the mouth of Prairie Creek, are perhaps somewhat comparable to the whale claims of the coast.

Yurok speech was uniform along the river.  On the coast a difference of dialect became perceptible, according to some accounts, at Espau, a more marked one at Orekw, and a third, most divergent variety at Tsurau.  Actually these differences must have been very slight, since recorded vocabularies and texts show an appreciable difference only for the region of Big Lagoon and Trinidad; and even this dialect was intelligible on the river.

The term “Coast Yurok,” in the present account, is used not with reference to this rather slight speech cleavage, but geographically — for the people south of the mouth of the Klamath.  These the other Yurok call Nererner.  Thus, ner-nererner, I speak Coast Yurok; ne-shagero, I speak Yurok.  Similarly, ne-kerermerner, I speak the language of the Karok, the Petsik-la; ne-we'yohtene, I speak Wiyot (We'yot); ne-tolowo, I speak Tolowa; ne-mimohsigo, I speak the Athabascan dialect of the Hupa (hupo-la) and Chilula (Tsulu-la).



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