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Impearls: HIC 2.01: Principles of Yurok law

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Principles of Yurok Law   by A. L. Kroeber

These are the standards by which the Yurok regulate their conduct toward one another:

  1. All rights, claims, possessions, and privileges are individual and personal, and all wrongs are against individuals.  There is no offense against the community, no duty owing it, no right or power of any sort inhering in it.

  2. There is no punishment, because a political state or social unit that might punish does not exist, and because punishment by an individual would constitute a new offense which might be morally justified but would expose to a new and unweakened liability.  An act of revenge therefore causes two liabilities to lie where one lay before.

  3. Every possession and privilege, and every injury and offense, can be exactly valued in terms of property.

  4. There is no distinction between material and nonmaterial ownership, right, or damage, nor between property rights in persons and in things.

  5. Every invasion of privilege or property must be exactly compensated.

  6. Intent or ignorance, malice or negligence, are never a factor.  The fact and amount of damage are alone considered.  The psychological attitude is as if intent were always involved.

  7. Directness or indirectness of cause of damage is not considered, except in so far as a direct cause has precedence over an indirect one.  If the agent who is directly responsible can not satisfactorily be made amenable, liability automatically attaches to the next agent or instrument in the chain of causality, and so on indefinitely.

  8. Settlement of compensation due is arrived at by negotiation of the parties interested or their representatives, and by them alone.

  9. When compensation has been agreed upon and accepted for a claim, this claim is irrevocably and totally extinguished.  Even the harboring of a sentiment of injury is thereafter improper, and if such sentiment can be indirectly connected with the commission of an injury, it establishes a valid counter-liability.  The known cherishing of resentment will even be alleged as prima facie evidence of responsibility in case an injury of undeterminable personal agency is suffered.

  10. Sex, age, nationality, or record of previous wrongs or damage inflicted or suffered do not in any measure modify or diminish liability.

  11. Property either possesses a value fixed by custom, or can be valued by consideration of payments made for it in previous changes of ownership.  Persons possess valuations that differ, and the valuation of the same nonmaterial property or privilege varies, according to the rating of the person owning it.  The rating of persons depends partly upon the amount of property which they possess, partly upon the values which have previously passed in transfers or compensations concerning themselves or their ancestors.

One doubtful qualification must be admitted to the principle that the Yurok world of humanity recognizes only individuals: the claims of kinship.  These are undoubtedly strong, not only as sentiments but in their influence on legal operations.  Yet a group of kinsmen is not a circumscribed group, as a clan or village community or tribe would be.  It shades out in all directions, and integrates into innumerable others.  It is true that when descent is reckoned unilaterally, a body of kinsmen in the lineage of the proper sex tends to maintain identity for long periods and can easily become treated as a group.  It is also conceivable that such patrilinear kin units exist in the consciousness of Yurok society, and have merely passed unnoticed because they bear no formal designations.  Yet this seems unlikely.  A rich man is always spoken of as the prominent person of a town, not of a body of people.  In the case of a full and dignified marriage, the bond between brothers-in-law seems to be active as well as close.  Women certainly identify themselves with their husbands' interests as heartily as with those of their parents and brothers on most occasions.  These facts indicate that relationship through females is also regarded by the Yurok; and such being the case, it is impossible for a kin group not to have been sufficiently connected with other kin groups to prevent either being marked off as an integral unit.  Then, a “half-married” man must have acted in common with the father-in-law in whose house he lived; and his children in turn would be linked, socially and probably legally, to the grandfather with whom they grew up as well as with their paternal grandfather and his descendant.  So, too, it is clear that a married woman's kin as well as her husband retained an interest in her.  If the latter beat her, her father had a claim against him.  Were she killed, the father as well as the husband would therefore be injured; and there can be little doubt that something of this community of interest and claim would descend to her children.  Kinship, accordingly, operated in at least some measure bilaterally and consequently diffusively; so that a definite unit of kinsmen acting as a group capable of constituted social action did not exist.

This attitude can also be justified juridically, if we construe every Yurok as having a reciprocal legal and property interest in every one of his kin, proportionate, of course, to the proximity of the relationship.  A man has an interest in his kinsmen X, Y, and Z similar to his interest in his own person, and they in him.  If A is injured, the claim is his. If he is killed, his interest in himself passes to X, Y, Z — first, or most largely, to his sons, next to his brothers; in their default to his brothers' sons — much as property interests pass, on his natural death, to the same individuals.  The only difference is that the claim of blood is reciprocal, possession of goods or privilege absolute or nearly so.

It may be added that this interpretation of Yurok law fits very nicely the practices prevailing in regard to wife purchase.  Here the interest in a person is at least largely ceded by her kinsmen for compensation received.

It is men that hold and press claims and receive damages for women and minors, but only as their natural guardians.  The rights of a woman are in no sense curtailed by her sex, nor those of a child by its years; but both are in the hands of adult male trustees.  Old women whose nearer male kin have died often have considerable property in their possession.  The weakness of their status is merely that they are unable to press their just claims by the threat of force, not that their claim is less than that of a man.

It may be asked how the Yurok executed their law without political authority being in existence.  The question is legitimate; but a profounder one is why we insist on thinking of law only as a function of the state when the example of the Yurok, and of many other nations, proves that there is no inherent connection between legal and political institutions.  The Yurok procedure is simplicity itself.  Each side to an issue presses and resists vigorously, exacts all it can, yields when it has to, continues the controversy when continuance promises to be profitable or settlement is clearly suicidal, and usually ends in compromising more or less.  Power, resolution, and wealth give great advantages; justice is not always done; but what people can say otherwise of its practices?  The Yurok, like all of us, accept the conditions of their world, physical and social; the individual lives along as best he may; and the institutions go on.

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