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Impearls: HIC 2.17: The crises of life

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

The crises of life   by A. L. Kroeber

Births occurred among the Yurok and their neighbors chiefly in spring.  This was, of course, not because of any animal-like impulse to rut at a certain season, as has sometimes been imagined, but because of highly specialized ideas of property and magic.  The Yurok had made the just psychological observation that men who think much of other matters, especially women, do not often become or remain wealthy.  From this they inferred an inherent antipathy between money and things sexual.  Since dentalia and valuables were kept in the house, a man never slept there with his wife, as already stated, for fear of becoming poor.  The institution of the sweat house rendered this easily possible.  In summer, however, when the cold rains were over, the couple made their bed outdoors; with the result that it seems natural to the Yurok that children should be born in spring.  A similar condition has been reported from the far-away Miwok region; but the responsible social circumstances, which were certainly different from those of the Yurok, are unknown.

As a girl's property value was greatly impaired if she bore a child before marriage, and she was subject to abuse from her family and disgrace before the community, abortion was frequently attempted.  Hot stones were put on the abdomen, and the fœtus thrown into the river.  There is little doubt that parents guarded their girls carefully, but the latter give the impression of having been more inclined to prudence than to virtue for its own sake.  Probably habits differed largely according to the rank of the family.  Poor girls had much less to lose by an indiscretion.

The prospective mother's wish was to bear a small child.  Therefore she worked hard and ate sparingly.  Difficulty in labor was thought to be caused by undue size of the child brought on by the mother's eating and sleeping too much.

In most of California women sit in childbirth.  For the Hupa the same is reported, but the Yurok woman is said to have lain bracing her feet against an assistant.  Her wrists were tied with pack straps to parts of the house frame.  When the assistant commanded, she raised herself by these thongs.  She must shut her mouth, else the child would not leave her body.  Many formulas to assist childbirth were known.  The most powerful of these, as their own content relates, were thought to become effective as soon as the reciter entered the house with her herb.

If the child during the first five or six days of its life were to take nourishment from its mother, the Yurok believe that its jaws would become affected and it would soon starve.  During this period it is fed only a little water in which hazel or pine nuts have been rubbed, and which looks milky.  For about the same number of days, or until the child's navel is healed, the father eats apart, touches no meat or fresh salmon, and drinks thin acorn soup instead of pure water.  The mother is under the same restrictions for a longer period: 50 days, or 60 for a stillbirth.  She spends this time in a separate hut.

The umbilical cord is severed with a piece of quartz clamped inside a split stick, and is carefully preserved in the house for about a year.  When the child is about to be weaned the father takes the shred on a ridge, splits a living fir, inserts the little piece of preciousness, and binds the sapling together again.  On his return the baby has its first meal other than milk.

If twins of opposite sexes were born, the Yurok smothered one of the pair, usually the girl.  They had a dread of such births, which they explain on the ground that if the twins lived they might be incestuous.  Boy twins were believed to quarrel all their lives, but were spared.  Once triplets were born at Murekw.  There was much excitement and much talk of killing them; but a Deerskin dance was made and warded off the sickness which the portent foreboded.

When a girl becomes mature she is called ukerhtsperek, and sits silent in her home for 10 days with her back turned to the central fire pit.  She moves as little as possible, and scratches her head only with a bone whittled and incised for the occasion.  Once each day she goes to bring in firewood; on her way she looks neither to left nor right, and looks up at no one.  The longer she fasts, the more food will she have in her life, it is believed.  After four days she may eat, but only at a spot where the roar of the river confounds every other sound.  Should she hear even a bird sing, she ceases at once.  Each evening she bathes, once the first night, twice the second, and so increasingly until on the eighth she pours the water over herself eight times.  The ninth night she bathes ten times, and on the tenth day, with declining day, once, squatting by the river, while the small children of the village, one after the other, wash her back.  Her mother or another woman then lays 10 sticks on the sand and tells her she will bear so many sons, and places 10 sticks in a row to represent her daughters.  The girl's dress during the 10 days is a skirt of shredded maple bark, such as shamans wear during their novitiate.

One in every several hundred Yurok men, on the average, preferred the life and dress of a woman, and was called wergern.  This frame of mind, which appears to have a congenital or psychological basis well recognized by the psychiatrist, was not combated, but socially recognized by the Indians of California — in fact, probably by all the tribes of the continent north of Mexico.  Only among the advanced peoples of that region did the law frown upon transvestites.  The Yurok explanation of the phenomenon is that such males were impelled by the desire to become shamans.  This is certainly not true, since men shamans were not unknown.  It is a fact, however, that all the wergern seem to have been shamans and esteemed as such — a fact that illuminates the Yurok institution of shamanism.  The wergern usually manifested the first symptoms of his proclivities by beginning to weave baskets.  Soon he donned women's clothing and pounded acorns.

At death, the corpse is addressed:  “Awok, tsutl (alas, good-by), look well and take with you the one who killed you with upunamitl” (a closure or pressing of internal organs produced magically).  The body is then painted with soot, and the septum of the nose pierced for insertion of a dentalium shell.  Elderberry sticks measure the length for the grave.  This is lined with planks.  Boards are removed from the side of the house and the body handed by two mourners inside to two outside.  No living soul passes through the opening and the corpse does not leave by the door.  The earth on which the person has lain in death is thrown away.  At the grave the dead body is washed with water containing herbs or roots and then interred with its head downstream.  No one in the town eats during the funeral, small children are taken aside, and all who have looked upon the dead bathe.  Those of the mourners who have touched the corpse rub themselves with the grapevine with which the body has been lowered into the grave and hand it from one to the other, thereby passing on the contamination to the last one.  This man for five days shuns all intercourse with human kind, does no work, sits in a corner of the house with his back turned, drinks no water, eats only thin acorn gruel, nightly makes a fire on the grave to keep his dead kinsman warm, and finally returns to communion with people by undergoing a washing purification of which the cardinal feature is a long formula.

Cemeteries adjoined towns; often lay in their very heart.  Large settlements sometimes had two or three graveyards.  Each family plot was small, so that in time numbers of bodies came to be buried in one grave.  Old bones were always reinterred.  At present each plot is neatly fenced with pickets and posts; but the Yurok say that even in the old days their graves were inclosed with boards.  The clothing and some of the personal belongings of the dead were set or hung over the grave; but there was no extensive destruction of property, much less any subsequent offerings to fire, as among most California tribes.  People dying away from home were, if possible transported back for interment; or, a grave was purchased for them where they died.

The dead, called so'o or kesamui — the words are used alike for “ghost” and “skeleton” — were thought to go below.  The entrance was pointed out at a small tree not far above the river just upstream from Sa'aitl, opposite Turip.  The Coast Yurok knew a spot in their own territory, and the Karok made the path of the dead go up the ridge southeastward from the mouth of the Salmon.  Underground, the dead Yurok came to a river, across which he was ferried by a Charon in a canoe.  Occasionally the boat tipped over.  Then the corpse revived on earth.  Once the crossing had been accomplished, return was impossible.  People killed with weapons went to a separate place in the willows; here they forever shouted and danced the war dance.  Contentious and thievish men also remained apart; their place was inferior.  A rich, peaceable man, on the other hand, who had constantly planned entertainment for dances, came to the sky.  Long ago, a young man once followed his beloved, overtook her at the bank of the river, and in his anger broke the ferryman's boat, it is said.  He brought back his bride, and for 10 years while the canoe of the lower world was being repaired or rebuilt, no one died on earth.

If a person revived “after having died,” a special dance, called wasurawits, was considered necessary to bring him back to human intelligence.  This seems to have been a modified form of the brush dance, with similar step and positions, held indoors.  Only a few feathers were used.  All available dresses heavily fringed with haliotis were shaken to drown the voices of the ghosts which the patient had heard and which were rendering him insane.  If he was violent, he was lifted on the drying frame within the house and held by two men; when his strength began to return, he was supported and made to dance to speed his recovery.

Should a person already buried make his way out of the grave, the Yurok believed him a monster, from whose insatiable desire for destruction they could only save themselves by killing him once more; but this was only to be accomplished by striking him with a bowstring!



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