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Impearls: HIC 3.04: The Kepel Dam dance

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

The Kepel Dam dance   by A. L. Kroeber

Perhaps the most famous of all ceremonies among the Yurok is the Deerskin dance associated with the building of a salmon dam at Kepel in early autumn.  The dam is made at the upstream edge of that village; the sacred house and sweat house of the ceremony stand in adjoining Sa'a; most of the dancing is in villages downstream.  The ceremony is in charge of the usual formulist, who, with an assistant, restricts himself to a diet of thin acorn gruel and visits many hallowed spots for 10 days.  For gathering firewood he has a woman assistant.  During the 10 days a band of at last 60 men — a smaller number would be unable to complete the work in time — assemble the posts, stakes, and withes and erect the weir.  These materials are obtained in specified ways at designated spots, and, with all the sanctity of the occasion, custom provides many occasions for merrymaking.  The weir is built in 10 named sections by as many companies of men.  Each group leaves an entrance, behind which is an inclosure: when salmon have run into this, the gate is shut and the fish easily taken out with nets.  Comic interludes increase toward the end.  On the last day the formulist's assistant, wearing a beard and personating a Karok who has eloped with another man's wife, pretends to be fleeing vengeance and allows his canoe to be capsized in midstream.  He swims to Kepel, crouches, and the mass of men, armed with long poles, clash them together over his head and lay them on his back until he is almost covered from sight.  This episode is repeated with but little improvised change from year to year, but is received by the multitude with appreciation that grows with familiarity.  The end of the dam building is a period of freedom.  Jokes, ridicule, and abuse run riot; sentiment forbids offense; and as night comes, lovers' passions are inflamed.

The formula for this ceremony is imperfectly known; but many of the actions, as well as the purpose of the dam, accentuate its tenor as a new year's and world establishing rite.

Before the great weir is finished, a sort of imitation Deerskin dance is held, with long flat cobbles to represent obsidian blades, by the river at Murekw, just downstream.  The night of the completion, and the next day, the proper Deerskin dance is danced at Kepel.  A few days pass; and then the people gather again about Wohtek-Wohkero, camping in groups, and dancing, for 10, 12, 14, or 16 days, at a spot just downstream from the village, with Wohtek, Ko'otep, Pekwan, Sregon, Murekw, and Kepel-Sa'a competing.  After another “ten days,” the Jumping dance is made, for a night and a day, at Murekw, or in alternative years on the hill above Merip.  Other accounts place the main Deerskin dance at Wohtek, and alternate a brief supplementary Deerskin dance at Halega'u, downstream from Wohkero, with the Murekw and Merip Jumping dances.

Kepel-Sa'a has not been a large community in historic times.  Its selection for the dam is no doubt due to a favorable condition of the river bed.  The associated dancing is mostly held at larger villages.  That at Wohtek-Wohkero may be suspected to have taken place at Ko'otep before the ruination of this town by the floods of 1861-62.  Myths tell how the woge spirits were about to institute the dam at Turip, and how, when it was moved to Kepel, the Turip people, coming over the hills to take back their rights by force, were turned into redwood trees still visible from Kepel — the farthest of the species upstream.  The lie of river and hills at the two places is very similar, and this resemblance to the eye, with the outposts at Kepel of the trees that dominate the view at Turip, may be the sole foundation of the tale; or a dam at Turip may have been a former actuality.

The dam and dance have not been made for many years, primarily because enough men can no longer be assembled for the construction, but in native opinion because no one can recite the entire formula.  A woman married in Meta is reputed to be the only person who knows certain passages, and she will not teach them.  She has lost her parents, all her brothers and sisters, and 10 children, it is said.  The ceremony would be for the health of the world; and in her own grief, she wishes no one else to be happy among the undiminished array of all his kin.  So tell the Yurok; and while they regret her sentiment, they seem to find it natural and scarcely disapprove.



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