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Impearls: HIC 2.12: Mourners' rights

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Mourners' rights   by A. L. Kroeber

As long as a corpse remained unburied, no one was allowed to pass the village in a boat.  If a traveler attempted to go on, the kin of the dead person would lay hold of his canoe.  If he succeeded nevertheless, he incurred liability to them.  The motive of the prohibition seems to have been that it was a slight to mourners if others transacted ordinary business in their sight or vicinity.

It is, however, specifically stated that this statute did not apply if the dead person had been killed by violence.  Similarly those slain were not included among the dead of the year whose kin must be paid before a village could undertake a dance.  The reason is clear: if there is a killing, the mourners have been or will be paid, and no further compensation is necessary; while those who grieve for a relative dead from natural causes are enduring an irremediable loss, and their feelings must be assuaged.

If a man died away from home his body might be taken back or buried on the spot.  In the latter case the right to interment was purchased.  Once payment had been accepted for this privilege, subsequent protest at the inclusion of a stranger's body in a family graveyard subjected the critic to liability for a claim for damages.

Before a major dance could be held, the dead of the year had to be paid for.  This was done by contributions of the residents of the village, or by the rich man of the locality.  If a village did not hold a dance, the law nevertheless applied, no residents being entitled to visit a ceremony elsewhere until the home mourners were satisfied.  This is an extremely characteristic Yurok provision.  The dances were held by them to be absolutely necessary to the prosperity and preservation of the world: still, because they afforded entertainment and pleasure to those who assembled, the mourners resented the occasion, and prevented it, until tendered pay for the violation of their grief.  In short, a private right is not in the least impaired by coming into conflict with a communal or universal necessity.  Since the ceremony is desirable, let those interested in it extinguish the personal claim, rather than have the holder of the latter suffer, would be the Yurok point of view.  To us, the legal sanctioning of the obtrusion of a private interest in the face of a general need seems monstrous.  The native probably feels that the mourners are extremely reasonable in allowing the dance to be held at all, and that in proportion to the necessity thereof the community ought to be ready to make sacrifices.  This is anarchy; but the Yurok are an anarchic people.

Before the Weitspus dance of 1901, four families were paid $2 each.  The compensation thus amounts to only a very small percentage of the value of a man's life.  The rich man of Pekwututl, across the river, demanded and received $3 because he was rich.  Having the money in his possession, he demanded a second payment of like amount for a relative he had lost at Hupa.  The Weitspus people demurred on the ground that he would be paid for this death by the Hupa when they held their dance at Takimitlding; but he stood firm and received what he asked.

If a village did not make or visit a dance for a year the mourners' claim lapsed totally.  There was the same limit to the prohibition against uttering a dead person's name.

According to a Karok informant the dead of the year were paid for by the rich men so far as the dead were relatives of those who contributed dance regalia, whereas even fellow townsmen who were too poor to help, or had been unwilling, were passed over.

The Yurok declare that the minor “brush dance” was not preceded by payments formerly, but that of late years small compensations have been exacted.  The Hupa, they state, pay more heavily for the privilege of making this dance.  The difference in custom may be due to an earlier abandonment of the great dances by the reservation Hupa, whereby the brush dance was exalted to a more significant position.  But it seems more in accord with the spirit of Yurok institutions that the brush dance should also have been permitted only after compensation; mourners particularly resent hearing singing.  The pay is, however, likely to have been small at all times, since the brush dance was instituted by an individual, who was at considerable expense apart from purchasing the privilege.

Compensation for utterances of the name of the dead went, of course, to the immediate kin — father, brother, or son.  A brother might give part to the widow; but she acted only as custodian of her dead husband's wealth, and was herself still the property of his family, unless she had borne a number of surviving children.  If it was she that was dead, payment is said to have gone to her husband, not to her kin.  The Yurok state that the amount of compensation depended solely on the rank of the deceased; age or sex were not factors.  After the name was bestowed on a child of the family, a year having elapsed, the taboo was of course thereby lifted.  This makes it clear that the conscious motive of the custom is respect for the mourners' grief for a due season.  If two men had the same name, the poorer, on the death of the richer, would “throw his away,” so as to avoid occasion of giving offense.  If the wealthy man was the survivor, he would pay his namesake's family, perhaps as much as five strings, satisfy them, and retain his name.

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