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Impearls: HIC 4.02: Houses

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Houses   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok house is built wholly of planks split from logs with wedges and more or less adzed.  It contains no posts and no beams.  The roof planking is supported by three or four plates that rest on heavy planks in the front and rear walls.  Two of these plates run near the side walls, the others form ridge poles.  The usual house has two ridges and three roof slopes, the middle one not quite level.  A single-ridged house is to the Yurok a sign of the owner's poverty: he builds only 3 fathoms wide; a well-to-do man 4.  Actual frontages by measurement are 17½, 19, 20, 21½ feet.  The depth is about a yard more.  No houses surpassing or falling short of these figures by more than a foot or two were built.  (Pls. 9, 10, 11.)

The walls are of planks set endwise in the ground, usually two rows thick.  Little care is given the side walls, which are only a few feet high and protected by the overhanging eaves.  For the front and rear, splendid solid planks from 1 to 4 feet in width are sometimes used.  In the middle of the wall they may rise 10 or more feet.  The boards in each wall are held together by two squared poles, one inside and the other out, lashed together with grapevine or hazel withes passing through holes in several of the boards.  The plates, which often project several feet, rest in rectangular notches cut into planks of particular strength.  The roof boards are as thin and wide as they can be made and from 8 to 10 feet long.  They are merely laid on in two overlapping thicknesses.  Fig. 4: Yurok house ladder. The lower ends are often not squared, and weather and split off irregularly, giving the Yurok house a very untidy look in our eyes.  The smoke hole is made by laying aside a board in the middle.  In rainy weather this leans over the opening propped by a stick set at an angle.  A refinement is introduced by gouging a gutter along the edges of the two boards bordering the smoke hole, to prevent side flow into the opening.  The smoke hole is never used as a door, but it serves as the only window.  Measuring about 2 by 7 feet, it admits a little shifting sunshine and a fair illumination to the middle of the house, but this remains cool in midsummer.  It darkens early, and the corners are dim and musty at noon.  A short log ladder with cut-in notches usually gives ready access from the ground to the roof when the smoke-hole plank is to be shifted or a leak repaired by an adjustment of boards.

The door is a round hole about 2 feet in diameter, cut a few inches above the ground through a plank of exceptional breadth and thickness.  This plank is always near one end of the front wall.  Two stones are planted as convenient grips just inside and often outside the entrance.  The door proper is a plank that slides in a groove — often a piece of gunwale of an old canoe — and is held upright by two stakes.  It can be tied but not locked.  The plank in which the hole is cut is sometimes simply ornamented in geometrical relief.  (Pl. 12.)

Just inside the door a partition extends nearly across the house 3 or 4 feet parallel from the front.  The blind alley thus formed serves for the storage of firewood, and is often littered with carrying baskets and rubbish.  This narrow compartment about takes up the excess of the length of the house over the breadth.

The square remainder of the interior is on two levels.  The center, for about half the diameter of the whole area, is dug out from 2 to 5 feet.  The surrounding shelf, some 5 or 6 feet wide, is at the natural level of the ground, or substantially so.  The central depression is the cause of the pits that mark the sites of ancient houses.  It is entered by a notched ladder (Fig. 4 4), sometimes as much as 2 feet wide.  A second ladder may stand at the far corner from the door, for convenient access to the farther sides of the shelf.  The corners of the pit are always cut off, sometimes to such a degree as to make it more nearly a regular octagon than a square.  The sides of the pit are always carefully lined with thin, even, and smoothed slabs.  These may reach a breadth of 4 feet.  In the middle of the pit is the fireplace, a shallow excavation usually bordered by five stones.  Above it, at less than a person's height, hangs a huge criss-cross of several tiers of poles in squares, on which salmon sides or other provisions are suspended.  Those on the lower rungs are more easily taken down than avoided with the head.  (Pl. 9.)

The “shelf” area serves for storage.  In a prosperous house, it is largely filled with huge storage baskets, 2 or 3 feet in diameter, filled with acorns and covered with inverted conical baskets.  The spaces behind and among these are often crowded with the provisions, baskets, and utensils temporarily out of commission.  Occasionally an elderly relative has her bed on the shelf, but this is unusual.

The pit is the area in which women and children sit, work, cook, eat, and sleep, and men often take a seat on a cylindrical or mushroom-shaped block or stool  The hard earth floor is generally kept swept fairly clean, but most Yurok housewives are untidy, and cooked food, eatables in preparation, unfinished baskets, materials, implements temporarily laid aside, and a variety of apparatus litter the cramped space, while from above half-cured slabs of salmon may drip grease, or gusts of rain drift in.  No matter how old and worn a utensil, it is rarely destroyed or deliberately thrown out; and an accumulation of property in good, poor, mediocre, and practically worthless condition cumbers most houses.  Orderliness is found in individuals, but is not the rule.

Before the door many houses have a pavement of flat river-worn stones, which provide a pleasant seat in the sun, and on which, when the weather permits, the main or evening meal is generally eaten.

A hut was used by Yurok women in their periodic illnesses.  This was a small and rude lean-to of a few planks, near the house or against its side.



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