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Impearls: HIC 2.15: Pursuit of wealth

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Pursuit of wealth   by A. L. Kroeber

The persistence with which the Yurok desire wealth is extraordinary.  They are firmly convinced that persistent thinking of money will bring it.  Particularly is this believed to be true while one is engaged in any sweat-house occupation.  As a man climbs the hill to gather sweat-house wood — always a meritorious practice, in the sense that it tends to bring about fulfillment of wishes — he puts his mind on dentalia.  He makes himself see them along the trail, or hanging from fir trees eating the leaves.  When he sees a tree that is particularly full of these visioned dentalia, he climbs it to cut its branches just below the top.  In the sweat house he looks until he sees more money shells, perhaps peering in at him through the door.  When he goes down to the river he stares into it, and at last may discern a shell as large as a salmon, with gills working like those of a fish.  Young men were recommended to undergo these practices for 10 days at a time, meanwhile fasting and exerting themselves with the utmost vigor, and not allowing their minds to be diverted by communication with other people, particularly women.  They would then become rich in old age.

Direct willing, demanding, or asking of this sort are a large element in all the magic of the Yurok, whatever its purpose.  Saying a thing with sufficient intensity and frequency was a means toward bringing it about.  They state that at night, or when he was alone, a man often kept calling, “I want to be rich,” or “I wish dentalia,” perhaps weeping at the same time.  The appeal seems to have been general, not to particular or named spirits.  Magic is therefore at least as accurate a designation of the practice as prayer.  How far the desires were spoken aloud is somewhat uncertain, the usual native words for “saying” and “thinking” something being the same; but it is very probable that the seeker uttered his words at least to himself.  The practical efficacy of the custom is unquestionable.  The man who constantly forced his mind and will into a state of concentration on money would be likely to allow no opportunity for acquisition to slip past him, no matter how indirect or subtle the opening.

According to a Karok myth, the sweat house, its restriction to men, and the practice of gathering firewood for it, were instituted in order that human beings might acquire and own dentalia.

The Yurok hold a strong conviction that dentalium money and the congress of the sexes stand in a relation of inherent antithesis.  This is the reason given for the summer mating season: the shells would leave the house in which conjugal desires were satisfied, and it is too cold and rainy to sleep outdoors in winter.  To preserve his money, in other words to prevent his becoming a spendthrift, a man bathes after contact with his wife, and is careful not to depart from the natural positions.  Strangely enough, the Yurok have a saying that a man who can exercise his virility 10 times in one night will become extraordinarily wealthy; but there are not wanting those who consider this idea unattainable by modern human beings.

This is a case of typical blending of avarice and magic, as related by the Hupa.  The grandchild of the rich man of Medilding had its mouth constantly open.  A shaman finally saw and proclaimed the cause.  An ancestor of the rich man had asked to kiss a dead friend or relative good-by.  He descended into the grave and, bending over the corpse's face, used his lips to draw out from the nose the two dentalia that are inserted through the septum, concealing his booty in his mouth until the grave had been filled.  According to report, the rich man admitted that an ancestor of his had actually risked this deed; and the shaman declared that it was the same dentalia that now kept the child's jaws apart.

A man who had borrowed a canoe and wished to buy it might report to the owner that he had broken it; but the possessor was likely to see through the ruse.  This is a native instancing of the cupidity which seems to them natural and justifiable.

Gifts were sometimes made by the Yurok, but on a small scale; and while reciprocation of some sort was anticipated, it was generally smaller and could not be enforced.  Presents were clearly a rich man's luxury.  The host might say to a visitor whose friendship he considered worth strengthening:  “You had better return by boat,” thereby giving him a canoe.  The guest in time would extend his invitation; and the visit would end with his presentation of a string or two of small money, or a quiver full of arrows.  As the Yurok say, the first donor had to be satisfied with what he got, because he had given a gift.



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