Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2005-11-06 Archive

Earthdate 2005-11-12

The Civilization of California's Far Northwest   by A. L. Kroeber

Following are the chapters of anthropologist A. L. Kroeber's 1923 classic work Handbook of the Indians of California which are pertinent to the remarkable aboriginal civilization of California's far northwest.

UPDATE:  2005-12-09 15:00 UT:  The eight chapters of this excerpt along with accompanying plates and figures are now complete (certain details such as the navigation control panels may yet change somewhat).  The still empty introduction to the volume indicated below should be completed within the next few days….


Chapter 1 – The Yurok:  Land and Civilization   by A. L. Kroeber

Following is the key to the parts into which A. L. Kroeber's chapter 1, “The Yurok: Land and Civilization” of his Handbook of the Indians of California has been divided:

Chapter 1 – The Yurok:  Land and Civilization

Northwestern California   by A. L. Kroeber

Fig. A (N): Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks, northwestern U.S. excerpt.
Fig. A (S): Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks, southwestern U.S. excerpt.

Figure A – Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks
(western U.S. excerpt).  National Atlas of the United States.  Legend to map. A

This history begins with an account of the Yurok, a nation resident on the lower Klamath River, near and along the Pacific Ocean, in extreme northern California (Pl. 1 [Fig. A]), surrounded by peoples speaking diverse languages but following the same remarkable civilization.  The complete aspect of this civilization is un-Californian.  It is at bottom the southernmost manifestation of that great and distinctive culture the main elements of which are common to all the peoples of the Pacific coast from Oregon to Alaska; is heavily tinctured with locally developed concepts and institutions; and further altered by some absorption of ideas from those tribes to the south and east who constitute the true California of the ethnologist.

This civilization, which will hereafter be designated as that of northwestern California, attains on the whole to a higher level, as it is customary to estimate such averaged values, than any other that flourished in what is now the State of California.  But it is better described as an unusually specialized culture, for the things in which it is deficient it lacks totally; and these are numerous and notable.

Quality of Civilization   by A. L. Kroeber

In inventions there was no marked superiority to the remainder of aboriginal California; but most arts were carried to a distinctive pitch.  Manufactured articles were better finished.  Many objects which the central and southern Californians fashioned only as bare utility demanded were regularly decorated with carvings in the northwest.  Often the identical object was made of wood in one region and of antler or stone in the other.  A new technical process is scarcely superadded by such a substitution.  As regards the mere list of knowledges or faculties, the two cultures remain at par.  But the northwestern preference for the more laborious material evidences a different attitude, an appreciation of values which in the ruder central and southern tracts is disregarded.  That this difference is deep seated, and that it is manifest at almost every point, is evident when the slab house of the Miwok and Yuki, the canoe or maul of the Modoc, the pipe or acorn stirrer of the Pomo, the netting shuttle and spoon of the Maidu, or the obsidian blade of the Wintun, are set by the side of the corresponding utensils of the Yurok or their northwestern neighbors.  It is only among the far-away Chumash that technological activities were granted a similar interest and love; and this localized southern culture has long since perished so completely as to make a comparative evaluation difficult.

The implements that are made only in the northwest — the stool, pillow, box, purse, and the like — are not very numerous.  They are at least partly balanced by central and southern devices which the northwesterners lack; and they do not in any instance involve a process or mechanical faculty of which the more typical Californians are wholly ignorant.

Much the same holds of wealth.  Money is prized and establishes influence everywhere in California.  It certainly counts for more in private and public life among the average Californian people than among the tribes of the plains or the settled and unsettled tribes of the southwestern United States.  But whatever its influence in southern or middle California, that influence is multiplied among the Yurok.  Blood money, bride purchase, compensation to the year's mourners before a dance can be held, are institutions known to almost every group described in the present work.  The northwesterners alone have measured the precise value of every man's life or wife or grief.  Every injury, each privilege or wrong or trespass, is calculated and compensated.  Without exactly adjusted payment, cessation of a feud is impossible except through utter extirpation of one party, marriage is not marriage but a public disgrace for generations, the ceremony necessary to the preservation of the order of the world is not held.  The consequence is that the Yurok concerns his life above all else with property.  When he has leisure, he thinks of money; if in need, he calls upon it.  He schemes constantly for opportunity to lodge a claim or to evade an obligation.  No resource is too mean or devious for him to essay in this pursuit.

If such endeavors are to be realized, there are needed an accurately computable scheme of economic valuation, and an elaborate and precise code of rights.  The northwesterner has both.  His law is of the utmost refinement.  A few simple and basic principles are projected into the most intricate subtleties; and there is no contingency which they do not cover.  The central Californian has his law also.  But it is neither rigid nor ramified.  Margin is left for modification according to personality or circumstance or public opinion.  There are phases of life in central California into which neither money nor legality enter.

With all this savoring so strongly of Kwakiutl and Haida custom, the Yurok is wholly Californian in his lack of any visible symbolism to give emotional expression to the economic values which are so fundamental with him.  He is without crests or carvings or totems; there are no separately designated social classes, no seats in order of rank, no titles of precedence, no named and fixed privileges of priority.  His society follows the aims of the societies of the North Pacific coast with the mechanism of the societies of middle California.

Property and rights pertain to the realm of the individual, and the Yurok recognizes no public claim and the existence of no community.  His world is wholly an aggregation of individuals.  There being no society as such, there is no social organization.  Clans, exogamic groups, chiefs or governors, political units, are unrepresented even by traces in northwestern California.  The germinal, nameless political community that can be traced among the Indians of the greater part of the State is absent.  Government being wanting, there is no authority, and without authority there can be no chief.  The men so called are individuals whose wealth, and their ability to retain and employ it, have clustered about them an aggregation of kinsmen, followers, and semidependents to whom they dispense assistance and protection.  If a man usually marries outside the village in which he lives, the reason is that many of his coinhabitants normally happen to be blood relatives, not because custom or law or morality recognize the village as a unit concerned with marriage.  The actual outcome among the Yurok may, in the majority of cases, be the same as among the nations consciously organized on an exogamic plan.  The point of view, the guiding principles both of the individual's action and of the shaping of the civilization, are wholly nonexogamic.  Such familiar terms as “tribe,” “village community,” “chief,” “government,” “clan,” can therefore be used with reference to the Yurok only after extreme care in previous definition — in their current senses they are wholly inapplicable.

Shamanism takes on a peculiar aspect in northwestern California in that the almost universal American Indian idea of an association between the shaman and certain spirits personally attached to him is very weakly and indirectly developed.  Shamanistic power resides in control of “pains,” small animate objects, nonanimal and nonhuman in shape, which on the one hand cause illness by entering the bodies of men, and on the other endow the shaman with power when he brings them to reside within himself, or rather herself, for practically all shamans are women.  The witch or poisoner is usually a man and operates by magic rather than shamanistic faculty.  In the remainder of California the distinction between the maker and the curer of disease is almost effaced, the shaman being considered indifferently malevolent or beneficent according to circumstances, but operating by the exercise of the same powers.

Concepts relating to magic are as abundantly developed among the Yurok and their neighbors as shamanism is narrowed.  Imitative magic is particularly favored and is often of the most crudely direct kind, such as performing a simple action or saying the desired thing over and over again.  The thousand and one occasions on which magic of this rather bare volitional type is employed reveal a tensity that usually seems brought on consciously.  This emotional tautness, which contrasts glaringly with the slack passivity and apathetic sluggishness of the average California Indian, is manifest in other matters.  Thus, restraint and self-control in manner and in relations with other men are constantly advocated and practiced by the Yurok.

Northwestern religion is colored by the cultural factors already enumerated.  The idea of organization being absent, there are no cult societies or initiations.  Symbolism is an almost unknown attitude of mind except in matters of outright magic: therefore masks, impersonations, altars, and sacred apparatus, as such, are not employed.  The tangible paraphernalia of public ceremony are objects that possess a high property value — wealth that impresses, but nevertheless profane and negotiable wealth.  The dances are displays of this wealth as much as they are song and step.  All life being individualized instead of socialized, the ceremonies attach to specified localities, much as a fishing place and an individual's right to fish are connected.  In the remainder of California, where stronger communal sense exists, the precise location of the spot of the dance becomes of little moment in comparison with the circumstances of the ceremony.

The esoteric element in northwestern dances and rites of public import has as its central feature the recitation of a formula.  This is not a prayer to divinities, but a narrative, mostly in dialogue, recounting the effect of an act or a series of acts, similar to those about to be performed, by a member of an ancient, prehuman, half-spirit race.  The recital of this former action and its effect is believed to produce the identical effect now.  The point of view is distinctly magical.  Similar formulas are used for the most personal purposes: luck in the hunt, curing of sickness, success in love, the accumulation of wealth.  These formulas are private property; those spoken at public ceremonials are no exception: their possessor must be paid, though he operates for the good of all.

Yurok mythology is woven in equally strange colors.  Stirring plot is slighted; so are the suspense of narrative, the tension of a dramatic situation — all the directly human elements which, however rude their development, are vividly present in the traditions of most of the Californians and many other divisions of American Indians.  A lyric, almost elegiac emotion suffuses the northwestern myths and tales.  Affection, homesickness, pity, love of one's natal spot, insatiable longing for wealth, grief of the prehuman people at their departure before the impending arrival of mankind, are sentiments expressed frequently and often with skill.  Events and incidents are more baldly depicted, except where the effect of the action recounted is the establishment of an existing practice or institution; and in these cases the myth is often nearly indistinguishable from a magical formula.  Tales that will interest a child or please a naïve stranger of another civilization do not appeal to the Yurok, who have developed refinedly special tastes in nearly everything with which they concern themselves.

Radius and focus of the civilization   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok shared this civilization in identical form with their neighbors, the Hupa and the Karok.  The adjacent Tolowa, Wiyot, and Chilula adhere to the same culture in every essential trait, but begin to evince minor departures in the direction of less intensive specialization.  A peripheral series of tribes — the Shasta, Konomihu, Chimariko, Whilkut, and Nongatl — show the loss of a number of characteristic northwestern features as well as some elements of culture that are clearly due to the example of exterior peoples.  To the south the diminution of the northwestern cultural forces can be traced step by step through the Sinkyone and Lassik until the last diluted remnants are encountered among the Wailaki.  The next group, the Kato, belong wholly within the civilization of central California.  The progressive change from Hupa to Kato is particularly impressive in view of the fact that all members of the chain are of common Athabascan speech.

To the north a similar transition into another civilization could presumably have once been followed.  But the societies of southwestern Oregon have long since perished, and the information about them is only sufficient to show the close similarity of the Takelma and Athabascans of Rogue River to the Yurok, and their civilizational inferiority.  Southwestern Oregon was culturally dependent on northwestern California.

Eastward, similarities to the northwestern culture appear for considerable distances — almost across the breadth of the State and into the northernmost Sierra Nevada.  These are, however, highland tracts of rather thin populations, to whom the typical culture of central California could not easily penetrate in full form, so that they were left open to random influences from all sides.

Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the institutions of northwestern type among the Yana, Achomawi, and mountain Maidu can be ascribed to specific northwestern influences.  Most of the cultural characteristics common to northwestern and northeastern California appear to have been found also in Oregon for some distance north.  To ascribe to the Yurok or Karok any definite share in the formation of modern Achomawi civilization would therefore be a one-sided view.  The whole of the tract embracing northernmost California and western, or at least southwestern, Oregon is in some respects a larger but ultimate cultural unit.  Within this unit, groups of peripheral position like the Achomawi have acquired only the more rudimentary elements and generic institutions, which they have further mingled with elements derived in perhaps larger proportion from central California and in some measure even from plateau or plains sources, not to mention minor institutions of local origin.  Centrally situated nations like the Yurok, on the other hand, have kept the original cultural supply in less adulterated form, and in building upon it have exerted an expansive influence on their neighbors and through them on peoples beyond.

Useful as the recognition of culture areas is as a scaffolding or preliminary plan for the student, the conditions in this region corroborate wholly the realization which has been gradually arrived at through investigations of civilization in many other parts of America, namely, that the exact delineation of such ethnographic provinces is almost invariably an artificial and unprofitable endeavor.  It is the foci that can be tolerably determined, not the limits; the influences that are of significance, rather than the range of the influences.

Such a focus, in some measure for all northernmost California and southwestern Oregon, and absolutely for northwestern California, is constituted by the Yurok, the Hupa, and the Karok.

Even as between these three little peoples of such close interrelations, some precedence of civilizational intensity, a slight nucleolus within the nucleus, can be detected; and the priority must be accorded to the Yurok.

Geographical and populational considerations would lead to such an anticipation.  The Yurok live on the united Klamath, the Hupa and Karok on its two arms, the Trinity and the unaugmented Klamath above the Trinity.  The numbers of the Yurok were as great as those of the two other groups combined.  Of the tribes of the second order or degree of participation in the civilization, the Tolowa, Wiyot, and Chilula, all three were adjacent to the Yurok, one only to the Hupa, none to the Karok.  The canoe can be made, in the perfected type, only of the redwood, a tree that grows, within the habitat of the three focal peoples, only in Yurok territory; and in fact the Hupa and Karok buy their boats from the Yurok.  The same tree also furnishes the best material for the lumber of which the houses of the region are built.

Actual cultural evidences are slight but confirmatory.  Throughout California it appears that adolescence ceremonies having direct reference to physiological functions are not only relatively but absolutely more elaborated among tribes of a ruder and more basic civilization.  Groups that have developed other ceremonial institutions to a considerable pitch actually curtail or dwarf this rite.  The Yurok make distinctly less of it than either Karok or Hupa.  The great ceremonies so characteristic of the region are, however, most numerous among them.  The Hupa perform these rituals in two or three towns, the Karok in four, and the Yurok in seven.  The elimination of animals as characters in traditional tales is a distinction of the pure northwestern culture.  The Yurok are more extreme in this respect than are the Karok.  Both Karok and Hupa agree with the larger nation in placing the birth of their culture hero at the Yurok village of Kenek.

Slender as are these indications, they all point the same way.  They justify the conclusion that the innermost core of northwestern civilization is more nearly represented by the Yurok than by any other group.  Even in a wider view, the center of dispersal — or concentration — of this civilization might be described as situated at the confluence of the Trinity and Klamath, from which the three tribes stretch out like the arms of a huge Y.  This spot is Yurok territory.  It is occupied by the village of Weitspus, now called Weitchpec, and its suburbs.  Either here or at some point in the populous 20 miles of river below must the precise middle of the cultural focus be set, if we are to attempt to draw our perspective to its finest angle.

Of course, it can not be contended that the whole of the northwestern civilization, or even all its topmost crests, flowed out from this sole spot.  Even an Athenian or a Roman metropolis at its height never formulated, much less originated, all of the culture of which it was the representative; and the California Indians were far from knowing any metropoles.  It might well be better, in a search such as has occupied us a moment ago, to think of the finally determined location as a point of civilizational gathering rather than radiation.  But where most is accumulated, most must also be given out.  The difference in cultural potence between upper and lower Yurok, between Yurok and Karok, must have been slight.  For every ten ideas or colorings of ideas that emanated from the exact center at least nine must have filtered into it; and even toward remoter regions, the disproportion can hardly have been excessive.  As regards any given single item of culture, it would be nearly impossible to assert with confidence where its specific development had taken place.  The thing of moment, after all, is not the awarding of precedence to this or that group of men or little tract of land, but the determination of the civilization in its most exquisite form, with an understanding, so far as may be, of its coming into being.  It is this purpose that has been followed, it may seem deviously, through the balancings of the preceding pages; and the end having been attained so far as seems possible in the present state of knowledge, it remains to picture the civilization as accurately as it can be pictured through the medium of the institutions, the thoughts, and the practices of the Yurok.

It may be added, as a circumstance not without a touch of the climactic in the wider vista of native American history, and as an illustration of principles well recognized in ethnology, that three of the great families of the continent are represented at the point of assemblage of this civilization.  The Yurok are Algonkins, the Karok Hokans, the Hupa Athabascans.

Towns   by A. L. Kroeber

Fig. 1: Yurok towns and territory.

Figure 1 – Yurok towns and territory. 1
Solid squares indicate sites occupied only during certain periods.
[Circles indicate modern communities.  Adapted from Kroeber's Figure 1.]

The territory of the Yurok, small as is its extent, is very unrepresentative of their actual life, since all of their habitations stood either on the Klamath River or on the shore of the ocean.  All land back in the hills away from their houses served only for hunting deer, picking up acorns, beating in seeds, and gathering firewood or sweathouse kindlings, according to its vegetation.  The most productive tracts were owned privately.  They were occasionally camped on, though never for long periods.  All true settlements formed only a long winding lane; and along this waterway Yurok life was lived.

The towns — hamlets is an exacter term according to civilized standard — numbered about 54 and are shown in Figure 1.  A few of these, such as Kenekpul, Tsetskwi, Himetl, Keihkem, Nagetl, Tlemekwetl, and some on the coast, may have been inhabited only from time to time, during the lifetime of a single man or a group of relatives.  The Klamath villages mostly lie on ancient river terraces, which gradually decrease in height toward the mouth of the widening stream.  Wahsekw is 200 feet up, Kenek 100, Kepel 75, Ko'otep 35, Turip 25, Wohkel 20.  The coast towns are almost invariably either on a lagoon or at the mouth of a stream.  Tsurau alone overlooks a cove well sheltered behind Trinidad Head.  Like the more wholly ocean-situated Wiyot and Tolowa, the Yurok did not hesitate to paddle out into open salt water for miles, if there was occasion; but their habits were formed on the river or still water.  The canoe was designed for stream use rather than launching through the surf; and the coast itself was designated as downstream and upstream according as it extended north or south.  Fishing was done at mouths of running fresh water, or by men standing at the edge of the surf, much more than on the abounding ocean.

The important villages come in groups.  The uppermost of these groups is at the mouth of the Trinity: Weitspus, Pekwututl, and Ertlerger.  These must have had, a century ago, a combined population of nearly 200.  Wahsekw, next below, was isolated and not very large, but wealthy.  Those that followed next were of little moment.  Kenek, which lies at the best fishing rapids in the Klamath, except possibly the fall near the mouth of the Salmon River in Karok territory, is the town most frequently mentioned in Yurok mythology, and is celebrated even in the traditions of their neighbors, but was always a small settlement in historical times.  Kepel, Sa'a, Murekw, and Himetl formed another considerable group of about the populousness of that at Weitspus.  Murekw seems to have been the largest of the group, Sa'a its religious center.  Several smaller settlements followed at short intervals, among which Sregon enjoyed a reputation for belligerence and wealth.  Pekwan Creek brought Pekwan, Ko'otep, Wohtek, and Wohkero.  This was perhaps the most populous cluster of Yurok villages.  For the next 20 miles the towns were strung apart and mostly quite small: Turip and Sa'aitl, also called Turip-opposite, formed the only larger group.  Then, at the mouth, on opposite sides of the tidal lagoon, came Rekwoi and Wetlkwau, with Tsekwetl, Pegwolau, and Keskitsa as quarters or suburbs, and Tmeri and Otwego somewhat doubtful as separate villages.  Here also the population must have approximated 200.

On the coast, Tsurau at Trinidad, several miles from its neighbors, was estimated the largest town; Opyuweg on Big Lagoon — also called simply Oketo, “lake” — was next; and Tsahpekw on Stone Lagoon third.  Four smaller townlets stood with Opyuweg on Big Lagoon, and Tsahpekw had Hergwer as a minor mate.  Of the other coast towns, Orekw at the mouth of Redwood Creek was the leading one, with Espau probably next.

Otsepor was really two settlements: Otsepor, and Aikoo downstream.  Ehkwiyer below Tsetskwi, Tekta below Wohkero, Enipeu below Serper, Stowin below Tlemekwetl have been occupied recently, but do not seem to be old sites.  Tlemekwetl is also known as Erlikenpets, Hergwer as Plepei, Metskwo as Srepor.  Terwer was an important summer camp site on the north bank between Sa'aitl and Wohkel, but appears to have had no permanent houses.  O'menhipur included houses on both sides of the mouth of Wilson Creek.  Neryitmurm and Pinpa are sometimes spoken of as towns, but may be only parts of Opyuweg.

The great fixed ceremonies were all held at the populous clusters: Weitspus, Kepel-Sa'a, Pekwan, Rekwoi, Wetlkwau, Orekw, Opyuweg.  Each of these had a sacred sweat house; and at each of them, and at them only, a White Deerskin or Jumping dance was made or begun.  Sa'a alone replaced the dance with a ritually built fish weir at adjacent Kepel.  It will be seen that ceremony followed population, as myth did not.  Besides Kenek, little Merip, Tlemekwetl, Turip, and Shumig — the uninhabited bluff behind Patricks Point — enter prominently into tradition.

Town Names   by A. L. Kroeber

It is clear from the appended list that in spite of abundant intercourse between the Yurok and Hupa, place names were not adopted into a foreign language, but were made over by these tribes.  Sometimes they were translated.  Thus the Yurok and Hupa names for Weitspus both refer to confluence, for Nohtskum to a nose of rock, for Serper to a prairie, for Wohkel to pepperwoods.  Other places seem to have been descriptively named by the Hupa, without reference to the significance of their Yurok names.  Thus they call four villages after the pepperwood, tunchwin, the Yurok only one.

yurok towns hupa names karok names
Otsepor Hotinunding
Pekwututl Hotuwaihot
Ertlerger Tunchwinta'ching
Weitspus Tlenalding Ansafriki
Wahsekw Hotenanding Hohira
Kenek Choholchweding Shwufum
Merip Hongha'ding
Wa'asel Tunchwingkis-hunding
Kepel Ta'tesading A'avunai
Murekw Tunchwingkut
Nohtsku'm Senongading
Meta Ninamelding
Sregon Kyuwitleding
Pekwan Kaikisdeke Firipama
Ko'otep Hohochitding
Wohtek Ninda'sanding
Serper Tlokuchitding
Turip Ninuwaikyanding
Sa'aitl Kitlweding
Terwer camp Kauhwkyokis-hunding
Wohkel Tunchwingkyoding
Ho'pau Chahalding
Rekwoi Mukanaduwulading Sufip
Wetlkwau Tsetlcheding
Espau Mingkekyoding
Orekw Chewillinding
Oketo Chwaltaike
Tsurau Muwunnuhwonding

Organization of towns   by A. L. Kroeber

Fig. 2: Yurok town of Weitspus and associated settlements.

Figure 2 – Yurok town of Weitspus and associated settlements. 2

Yurok houses, or their sites, had names descriptive of their position, topography, size, frontage, or ceremonial function.  Many of these designations reappear in village after village.  The names of abandoned houses were remembered for at least a lifetime, perhaps nearly as long as the pit remained visible.  If a family grew and a son or married-in son-in-law erected a new dwelling adjacent to the old, the original name applied to both houses.  Sweat houses were usually but not always called by the same name as the house to whose master they belonged, and seem normally to have been built close by.

The habit of naming house sites appears to have been restricted to northwestern California.  It is but one instance of many of the intensive localization of life in this region, of its deep rooting in the soil.  The origin of the custom is scarcely discernible, but the Yurok made frequent use of it to designate persons without naming them.  A person referred to as “the old man of Trail Descends” would be absolutely defined to his village mates, and even in distant villages might be better known by that description than by his personal appellation.

The following are the houses of Weitspus, as shown in Figure 2.


1. (With 2). 13. Otsepor (“steep”)
2. Wonitl or Wonoyertl (“up”). 14. Kome'r (“last”)
3. (With 4). 15. Ple'l (“large”)
4. Ra'ak (“in the creek”). 16. (With 17).
5. Sohtsu (“on top”). 17. Nikerwerk (“close to dance”).
6. Ketsketl. 18. Erkigeri (“tie hair” for dance).
7. 19. Wogwu (“in middle”).
8. 20. Opyuweg (“dance”).
9. Oslokw (“trail descends”). 21. Ta'amo (“elderberries”).
10. (With 11). 22. Higwop (“in the water”).
11. Tsekwetl (“flat”). 23. Petsku (“upstream”).

sweat houses
(Named after houses which they adjoin and to which they belong.)

A with 2. D with 11.
B with 6. E with 19.
C with 9. F with 22.

These are the houses of Rekwoi: Oregok (“where rolls down,” a game), Oslokw, Layekw (“trail”) or Erkigerl (where they prepared for dancing), Ple'l (“large,” in which the Jumping dance was begun), Hokome'r (“end”), Knau, Ma'a, Te'wira, Ma'a-wono (“up-hill from Ma'a”), Sepora (“open place, flat”), Perkweri (“behind the door”), Kekomeroi (“end, last”), Kiwogi (“in middle”), Ernerkw (“narrow”), Kinekau (“on the brink”), Tewolek-repau (“facing the ocean”), Howeyiro'i, Olige'l Ma'a-hito (“this side of Ma'a”), Nekerai.  Of these, Ketsketl, Oslokw, Layekw, Knau, Ma'a, Te'wira, Sepora, Kiwogi and Howiyero'i had sweat houses at one time or another; besides which there were sweat houses known as Tetl, Tsa'at'orka'i, and Ki'mo'le'n (“ugly, old”), the last being the sweat house used in the Jumping dance.

Pekwan contained Ereu, Tekor, Ketsketl, Opyuweg (“dance,” in which the Jumping dance was made), an unnamed house adjacent to the last and probably belonging to the same family, Etlkero, Wogi, Erkigeri-tserwo (in which the dance was prepared for), Hiwon (“uphill”), Lekusa (“sweat house exit”), Tetl wo'lometl (“the tetl live in it,” they being the men who during the Jumping dance frequent the sacred sweat house), Hetlkak, Tso'oleu (“down hill”), Olohkwetolp, Ta'amo (“elderberries”), Hitsao, Ska'awelotl (“buckeye hangs”).  The sweat houses were Ereu, Ketsketl, Wogi, Lekusa, Hesier, and Opegoiole, the last used in the Jumping dance.  The cemetery filled the center of the village, from Ketsketl to Lekusa, and between Wogi and Erkigeri on the upper side and Ktlkero and Hitsao on the other.  [Footnote:  Waterman, Yurok Geography, 1920 (see Bibliography), lists the houses of Rekwoi and Pekwan with slight variations from the above, adds town pl[o]ts, and gives detailed maps of Yurok settlements and habitat generally.]

Political and national sense   by A. L. Kroeber

The national horizon of the Yurok was as confined as that of most northern Californians.  Adjacent tribes were visited at ceremonies and to some extent wives were purchased from them.  Of those next beyond, there was only the dimmest knowledge; and farther, neither rumor nor legend nor interest.  At that distance, there was only the end of the world, or a strange unsighted ocean, and perhaps things that no one wanted to see.  The Yurok did not venture into the unknown and felt no desire to.  Nor did they welcome strangers.  If any came, it must be for a bad purpose; and they were put out of the way at the first opportunity.  A man of substance, wealth, or character did not stray or nose about.  He remained at home in dignity, or traveled where relatives of old or hereditary friends welcomed him.  If ever he went farther, it was with their introduction.  An old man of Pekwan, born there of a Tolowa mother from Kohpei, a man of property and many formulas, had traveled in his lifetime as far as Tolowa Eshpeu; Karok Kumawer, not quite as far as sacred Inam, below Happy Camp; and in Wiyot territory to Eureka.  The county seat and its fairs drew him to the latter.  Before the white man came he would probably not have passed beyond the mouth of Mad River.

It is essential to bear in mind that since there was no definite community sense within a village, there was no opportunity for a larger or political community to develop out of a group of adjacent villages.  One settlement in such a group — a “suburb” — was sometimes involved in a feud while another directly across the river looked on.  Of course, wherever kinship existed, it formed a definite bond between towns as within them; but however instrumental blood relationship may sometimes become as a means of political organization, it is not in itself productive of a political sense; and the replacement of the latter by a feeling of kinship or personal relation among people like the Yurok is precisely what makes it necessary to distinguish the two if this peculiar society is to be understood.

It is true that Wahsekw danced against Weitspus, and played against it at shinny, and that under threat of attack from a remote and consolidated alien foe, village might adhere to village in joint war, just as, in lesser feuds, town mates, impelled by bonds of association or imperiled by their common residence, would sometimes unite with the group of individuals with whom the feud originated.  But these are occasions such as draw neighbors together the world over, be they individuals, districts, or nations.  While they are capable of being utilized in the formation of civic units, they do not in themselves constitute the associated bodies into political societies.

There is one recorded instance of larger community rights.  If a whale came ashore anywhere between Atlau, south of Osegen, and Tsotskwi-hipau, south of Dry Lagoon, it belonged to Espau, Orekw, and Tsahpekw jointly, each man taking a cut a half-fathom wide, the rich men a full fathom.  This is analogous to a recognition, probably prospective rather than ever actual, that Little River (or perhaps a certain other stream in the vicinity) marked the point beyond which a stranded whale was wholly in Wiyot ownership; to the north thereof the property of the Yurok of Tsurau (including Metskwo); whereas if it drifted to shore across the mouth of the stream, it was shared by the two groups.  The Big Lagoon villages probably held corresponding rights for the intervening stretch of coast, and the Rekwoi-Wetlkwau the privilege on another stretch of beach to the north.  But a whale was an infrequent and uncontrollable event, a half winter's provisions, and yet not so wholly sporadic that definite custom was unable to crystallize about it.  There is no instance of a similar law as regards fishing rights on the river, hunting territories, and acorn and seed tracts; all of which were individual or family property and not community rights.  Fish dams, intercommunally erected for brief periods at Kepel, at Lo'olego above Weitspus, and on Redwood Creek at Orau at the mouth of Prairie Creek, are perhaps somewhat comparable to the whale claims of the coast.

Yurok speech was uniform along the river.  On the coast a difference of dialect became perceptible, according to some accounts, at Espau, a more marked one at Orekw, and a third, most divergent variety at Tsurau.  Actually these differences must have been very slight, since recorded vocabularies and texts show an appreciable difference only for the region of Big Lagoon and Trinidad; and even this dialect was intelligible on the river.

The term “Coast Yurok,” in the present account, is used not with reference to this rather slight speech cleavage, but geographically — for the people south of the mouth of the Klamath.  These the other Yurok call Nererner.  Thus, ner-nererner, I speak Coast Yurok; ne-shagero, I speak Yurok.  Similarly, ne-kerermerner, I speak the language of the Karok, the Petsik-la; ne-we'yohtene, I speak Wiyot (We'yot); ne-tolowo, I speak Tolowa; ne-mimohsigo, I speak the Athabascan dialect of the Hupa (hupo-la) and Chilula (Tsulu-la).

Directions   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok, and with them their neighbors, know no cardinal directions, but think in terms of the flow of water.  Thus pul is the radical meaning downstream; pets, upstream; hiko, across the stream; won, up hill, that is, away from the stream on one's own side; wohpe, across the ocean, and so on.  Such terms are also combined with one another.  If a Yurok says “east” he regards this as an English word for upstream, or whatever may be the run of the water where he is.  The name Yurok itself — which in origin is anything but an ethnic designation — means “downstream” in the adjacent Karok language.  The degree to which native speech is affected by this manner of thought is remarkable.  A house has its door not at its “western” but its “downstream” corner.  A man is told to pick up a thing that lies “upstream” from him, not on his “left.”  The basis of this reckoning is so intensely local, like everything Yurok, that it may become ambiguous or contradictory in the usage of our broader outlook.  A Yurok coming from O'men to Rekwoi has two “upstreams” before him: south along the coast, and south-southeast, though with many turns, along the Klamath.  When he arrives at Weitspus, the Trinity stretches ahead in the same direction in the same system of valley and ridges; but being a tributary, its direction is “up a side stream,” and the direction “upstream” along the Klamath suddenly turns north, or a little east of north, for many miles.  Beyond their Karok neighbors the Yurok seem to have a sense that the stream comes from the east.  At least they point in that direction when they refer to the end of the world at the head of the Klamath.

This plan of orientation is characteristic of all the northwestern tribes, and is followed in some degree in central California.  The Yurok terms of direction, in the far-away San Joaquin Valley, are at least shifted from the Cardinal points in accord with the flow of water, if indeed they do not refer to it.  The cognate Maidu words are said to have the same meaning as our own.  But it is possible that the Maidu have given a sun-determined meaning to original drainage terms under the ritualizing influence of their Kuksu cult.  This may also be what has happened among southern Wintun, Pomo, and Yuki, who constantly use words like “north,” while the central Wintun think in terms of waterflow.  It has been customary among inquirers to assume that Pomo yo means “south” because a group consistently uses it for that direction; which, of course, is no proof.  In any event it is likely that exact south, when they knew a south, was determined for most California tribes by the prevailing direction of their streams as much as by the meridian of the sun.  The rectangular and parallel disposition of the drainage in the greater part of the State must have contributed to this attitude.  Only in southern California, where water runs far apart and intermittently, and the ceremonializing symbolism of the southwestern tribes is a near influence, is it certain that we encounter true terms of solar orientation.

Population   by A. L. Kroeber

Yurok population can be more accurately determined than the strength of most other Californian groups, so that a detailed analysis seems worth while.

The most valuable source of information is a census made in 1852 by a trader who spent the most of his life at Klamath.  It covers the towns from the mouth of the river to the salmon dam at Kepel.  Only 17 are enumerated, but some of the smaller ones may have been counted as suburbs of the more important settlements.  Thus Wetlkwau was perhaps reckoned as part of Rekwoi, or perhaps overlooked.  The figures are:

Houses Inhabitants Houses Inhabitants
Rekwoi 22 116 Yohter 3 13
Ho'pau 6 72 Sregon 7 66
Wohkel 2 15 Meta 6 39
Sa'aitl 2 34 Nohtsku'm 4 15
Turip 14 94 Murekw 14 105
Serper 4 52 Sa'a 3 13
Wohkero 3 51 Kepel 3 10
Wohtek 4 55 _____ ______
Ko'otep 24 165 141 1,052
Pekwan 20 137

The total of 1,052 comprises 354 men, 381 women, 160 boys, 157 girls.  The 7 per cent deficiency in adult males is about what might be expected as a consequence of feuds.

The house averages per village fluctuate from 3 to 17.  This seems excessive; but there is no reason to doubt the grand average of nearly 7½ souls per dwelling.  The five largest towns yield 617 persons in 94 houses, or somewhat over 6½.

In the stretch of river covered by the 17 towns of the list, Figure 1 1 shows 20 standard settlements and 6 others that were inhabited discontinuously or are otherwise doubtful.  According as the 141 houses and 1,052 souls are attributed respectively to 17, 20, or 26 settlements, the house average per village is 813, 7, and 512, the population 62, 53, or 40.  The most likely averages for settlements of all sizes and kinds would seem to be:

Persons per house, 7½.
Houses per town, 6.
Persons per town, 45.

Outside of the Kepel-Rekwoi stretch, Figure 1 1 designates 21 standard and 7 more doubtful towns.  These allow of calculations of the whole Yurok population being undertaken:

1,052  (= 26 × 40)  + 1,133  (= 28 × 40)  = 2,185.
1,052  (= 20 × 53)  + 1,105  (= 21 × 53)  = 2,155.
1,052  (= 17 × 62)  + 1,300  (= 21 × 62)  = 2,352.

The conclusion is that the aggregate Yurok population can not have been much below and was certainly not above 2,500.

This figure is precisely the estimate arrived at from acquaintance with the settlements and sites of recent years, their house pits, and discussion with the older Indians of the number of inhabited houses they remember from their youth.

A count of the upper Yurok villages, also made about 1852 by an early resident on the river, is less itemized than the preceding, but yields 544 persons in 68 houses from Wahsekw to Otsepor, and an average house population of eight.  The map has only six villages in this reach.

Five hundred and forty-four added to 1,052 makes 1,596.  There is a gap of nearly 10 miles, which the first authority estimates to have had 310 inhabitants.  This seems a high figure, since there were only five settlements, and two of these not admitted as old or permanent by the modern Yurok.  Perhaps Kepel and Wahsekw have been counted twice.  A reduction to 200 still leaves the total for the the River Yurok at 1,800 in 37 settlements.  Seventeen coast villages, exclusive of Rekwoi and Wetlkwau, would have 800 inhabitants at the same ratio.  But as the coast towns make the impression of having been somewhat smaller than those on the river, and not more than one or two were distinctly populous, this figure can be reduced to 600 or 700; which, added to the 1,800 on the river, brings us again to barely 2,500.  This number seems almost certain to be true within not to exceed 100 or 200 at the time of first American contact.

These data, so far as they relate to house and village population, probably hold with little change for all the specifically northwestern groups; that is, the Karok, Hupa, Tolowa, Yurok, and with some reduction for the Chilula.  The populousness per riparian mile fluctuated according to local conditions, as is set forth in connection with the Wiyot; while any computation based on area of land held would be worthless.  Prohibitive caution would also have to be exercised in applying any of these figures to other parts of California.  Not only the topography and natural resources but customs vary enormously.

The Government expedition sent through the Klamath region in 1851 to negotiate with the Indians did not follow the river below Wahsekw, but 32 Yurok villages were mentioned by the Indians as lying between Bluff Creek and the mouth.  This tallies closely with the present map.  At the ratio then estimated of 10 persons to the house and 9 houses per village, the population on the river would have been nearly 3,000; but this figure seeming excessive it was cut in half by the recorder as still liberal.  Recent counts of houses and house pits recollected as inhabited, total over 170 for the Rekwoi-Kepel stretch.

Rekwoi-Wetlkwau 23 + 22 Sregon 6 7
Ho'peu 9 6 Meta 7 6
Wohkel 2 2 Nohtsku'm 4 4
Sa'aitl 5 2 Murekw-Himetl 21 14
Turip 8 + 14 Sa'a-Kepel 14 6
Serper 3 4 _____ _____
Wohkero-Wohtek 13 7 154 + 141
Ko'otep 18 24 Other settlements 19
Pekwan 17 + 20 _____
Yohter 4 3 173 + *

[*Footnote:  Waterman, Yurok Geography, 1920, p. 206, gives a somewhat different distribution of the number of houses in the towns between Rekwoi and Kepel, but an almost identical total of 171 plus a few in small settlements.  For the Yurok as a whole he tabulates 324 houses in 47 recognized towns, besides which there were 16 minor settlements in which there remained only house pits during native memory or for which recollection failed.  The total of 324 multiplied by 7½ yields 2,430 as the Yurok population.  Unoccupied houses in the larger towns would probably more than make up for inhabited but uncounted houses in the smaller settlements.  On page 209 he lists 107 different names borne by 219 different houses.  Of these, 23 names of 111 houses refer to position in the town, 17 names of 24 houses describe the structure, and 6 names of 12 houses have religious reference.]

The Yurok recognize that a village normally contained more named house sites than inhabited houses.  Families died out, consolidated, or moved away.  The pit of their dwelling remained and its name would also survive for a generation or two.  If allowance is made for parts of villages washed out by floods and possibly by mining, or dwellings already abandoned when the American came and totally forgotten 60 years later, the number of house sites on these 30 miles of river may be set at 200 or more in place of 173.  In other words, there were two houses to each three recognized house sites among the Yurok in native times.

A count of the same 17 villages on the lower Klamath in 1895 revealed a total of 151 houses, or 10 more than in 1852.  But instead of 1,052 Indians only 384 were living, and these partly of mixed blood.  There were 141 men, 136 women, 55 boys, and 52 girls, or only about 2½ souls per house — a third of the ratio in native times.

The majority of these 151 dwellings were built in American fashion.  It was customary, by this time, for a family to have two or three houses, or a native and an American house.  The principal change in relative size of villages was between Ko'otep and Wohtek-Wohkero.  The former was overwhelmed with mud in the great floods of 1861-62, and most of the inhabitants moved to the latter site.  In 1852 Ko'otep had 24 of the 31 houses in the group, in 1895 only 6 out of 37.  Turip also suffered from flood and declined from 14 houses to 5 in the interval, while Rekwoi, favored with a trading post like Wohtekw-Wohkero, rose from 22 to 30 in 1895.

On the basis of 382 people in these 17 settlements, the Yurok population in 1895 may be set at 900, or perhaps a little less on account of a more rapid decrease along the coast than on the river.

The Federal census of 1910 reported 668 Yurok.  This figure probably includes substantially all full and half bloods, and part of the quarter breeds.

Chapter 2 – The Yurok:  Law and Custom   by A. L. Kroeber

Following is the key to the parts into which A. L. Kroeber's chapter 2, “The Yurok: Law and Custom” of his Handbook of the Indians of California has been divided:

Chapter 2 – The Yurok:  Law and Custom

Principles of Yurok Law   by A. L. Kroeber

These are the standards by which the Yurok regulate their conduct toward one another:

  1. All rights, claims, possessions, and privileges are individual and personal, and all wrongs are against individuals.  There is no offense against the community, no duty owing it, no right or power of any sort inhering in it.

  2. There is no punishment, because a political state or social unit that might punish does not exist, and because punishment by an individual would constitute a new offense which might be morally justified but would expose to a new and unweakened liability.  An act of revenge therefore causes two liabilities to lie where one lay before.

  3. Every possession and privilege, and every injury and offense, can be exactly valued in terms of property.

  4. There is no distinction between material and nonmaterial ownership, right, or damage, nor between property rights in persons and in things.

  5. Every invasion of privilege or property must be exactly compensated.

  6. Intent or ignorance, malice or negligence, are never a factor.  The fact and amount of damage are alone considered.  The psychological attitude is as if intent were always involved.

  7. Directness or indirectness of cause of damage is not considered, except in so far as a direct cause has precedence over an indirect one.  If the agent who is directly responsible can not satisfactorily be made amenable, liability automatically attaches to the next agent or instrument in the chain of causality, and so on indefinitely.

  8. Settlement of compensation due is arrived at by negotiation of the parties interested or their representatives, and by them alone.

  9. When compensation has been agreed upon and accepted for a claim, this claim is irrevocably and totally extinguished.  Even the harboring of a sentiment of injury is thereafter improper, and if such sentiment can be indirectly connected with the commission of an injury, it establishes a valid counter-liability.  The known cherishing of resentment will even be alleged as prima facie evidence of responsibility in case an injury of undeterminable personal agency is suffered.

  10. Sex, age, nationality, or record of previous wrongs or damage inflicted or suffered do not in any measure modify or diminish liability.

  11. Property either possesses a value fixed by custom, or can be valued by consideration of payments made for it in previous changes of ownership.  Persons possess valuations that differ, and the valuation of the same nonmaterial property or privilege varies, according to the rating of the person owning it.  The rating of persons depends partly upon the amount of property which they possess, partly upon the values which have previously passed in transfers or compensations concerning themselves or their ancestors.

One doubtful qualification must be admitted to the principle that the Yurok world of humanity recognizes only individuals: the claims of kinship.  These are undoubtedly strong, not only as sentiments but in their influence on legal operations.  Yet a group of kinsmen is not a circumscribed group, as a clan or village community or tribe would be.  It shades out in all directions, and integrates into innumerable others.  It is true that when descent is reckoned unilaterally, a body of kinsmen in the lineage of the proper sex tends to maintain identity for long periods and can easily become treated as a group.  It is also conceivable that such patrilinear kin units exist in the consciousness of Yurok society, and have merely passed unnoticed because they bear no formal designations.  Yet this seems unlikely.  A rich man is always spoken of as the prominent person of a town, not of a body of people.  In the case of a full and dignified marriage, the bond between brothers-in-law seems to be active as well as close.  Women certainly identify themselves with their husbands' interests as heartily as with those of their parents and brothers on most occasions.  These facts indicate that relationship through females is also regarded by the Yurok; and such being the case, it is impossible for a kin group not to have been sufficiently connected with other kin groups to prevent either being marked off as an integral unit.  Then, a “half-married” man must have acted in common with the father-in-law in whose house he lived; and his children in turn would be linked, socially and probably legally, to the grandfather with whom they grew up as well as with their paternal grandfather and his descendant.  So, too, it is clear that a married woman's kin as well as her husband retained an interest in her.  If the latter beat her, her father had a claim against him.  Were she killed, the father as well as the husband would therefore be injured; and there can be little doubt that something of this community of interest and claim would descend to her children.  Kinship, accordingly, operated in at least some measure bilaterally and consequently diffusively; so that a definite unit of kinsmen acting as a group capable of constituted social action did not exist.

This attitude can also be justified juridically, if we construe every Yurok as having a reciprocal legal and property interest in every one of his kin, proportionate, of course, to the proximity of the relationship.  A man has an interest in his kinsmen X, Y, and Z similar to his interest in his own person, and they in him.  If A is injured, the claim is his. If he is killed, his interest in himself passes to X, Y, Z — first, or most largely, to his sons, next to his brothers; in their default to his brothers' sons — much as property interests pass, on his natural death, to the same individuals.  The only difference is that the claim of blood is reciprocal, possession of goods or privilege absolute or nearly so.

It may be added that this interpretation of Yurok law fits very nicely the practices prevailing in regard to wife purchase.  Here the interest in a person is at least largely ceded by her kinsmen for compensation received.

It is men that hold and press claims and receive damages for women and minors, but only as their natural guardians.  The rights of a woman are in no sense curtailed by her sex, nor those of a child by its years; but both are in the hands of adult male trustees.  Old women whose nearer male kin have died often have considerable property in their possession.  The weakness of their status is merely that they are unable to press their just claims by the threat of force, not that their claim is less than that of a man.

It may be asked how the Yurok executed their law without political authority being in existence.  The question is legitimate; but a profounder one is why we insist on thinking of law only as a function of the state when the example of the Yurok, and of many other nations, proves that there is no inherent connection between legal and political institutions.  The Yurok procedure is simplicity itself.  Each side to an issue presses and resists vigorously, exacts all it can, yields when it has to, continues the controversy when continuance promises to be profitable or settlement is clearly suicidal, and usually ends in compromising more or less.  Power, resolution, and wealth give great advantages; justice is not always done; but what people can say otherwise of its practices?  The Yurok, like all of us, accept the conditions of their world, physical and social; the individual lives along as best he may; and the institutions go on.

Money   by A. L. Kroeber

The money of the Yurok was dentalium shells.  Dentalia occur in California, the species D. hexagonum inhabiting the southern coast, and D. indianorum perhaps the northern.  Both species, however, live in the sand in comparatively deep water, and seem not to have been taken alive by any of the California Indians.  The Yurok certainly were not aware of the presence of the mollusk along their ocean shore, and received their supply of the “tusk” shells from the north.  They knew of them as coming both along the coast and down the Klamath River.  Since the direction of the first of these sources is “downstream” to them, they speak in their traditions of the shells living at the downstream and upstream ends of the world, where strange but enviable people live who suck the flesh of the univalves.

Dentalia are known to have been fished by the Indians of Vancouver Island, and were perhaps taken by some tribes farther south; but it is certain that every piece in Yurok possession had traveled many miles, probably hundreds, and passed through a series of mutually unknown nations.

The Yurok grade their shells very exactly according to length, on which alone the value depends.  They are kept in strings that reach from the end of an average man's thumb to the point of his shoulder.  Successive shells have the butt end in opposite direction so as not to slip into one another.  The pieces on one string are as nearly as possible of one size.  So far as they vary, they are arranged in order of their length.  But shells of sufficiently different size to be designated by distinct names are never strung together, since this would make value reckoning as difficult as if we broke coins into pieces.  The length of “strings” was not far from 27½ inches [69.85 cm], but of course never exactly the same, since a string contained only an integral number of shells and these, like all organisms, varied.  The cord itself measured a yard [91 cm] or more.  This allowed the shells to be slid along it and separated for individual measurement without the necessity of unstringing.  The sizes and names of the shells are as follows:

Length of
shell in
[cm] Yurok name
of shell
Hupa name
of shell
Yurok name
of string
Hupa name
of string
Shells to
string of
27½ inches
2 12 6.35 Kergerpitl Dingket Kohtepis Moanatla 11
2 516 5.8738 Tego'o Kiketukut-hoi Na'apis Moananah 12
2 18 5.3975 Wega Chwolahit Nahksepitl Moanatak 13
2  – 5.08 Hewiyem Hostanhit Ta'anepitl Moanadingk 14
1 78 4.7625 Merostan Tsepupitl 15

The Yurok further distinguish tsewosteu, which is a little shorter than merostan, though still money.  Possibly tsewosteu was the name of the 15-to-the-string shells, and merostan — sometimes called “young man's money” — denoted a size of which 14½ measured a string.  The Yurok further specify the length, both of pieces and of strings, by adding a number of qualifying terms, especially oweyemek and wohpekemek, which denote various degrees of shortness from standard.

Dentalia which go more than 15 or 15½ shells to the string are necklace beads.  These come in three sizes, terkutem, skayuperwern, and wetskaku, the latter being the shortest.  The value of all these was infinitely less than that of money, and they were strung in fathoms [183 cm] or half-fathoms [91], the grade being estimated by eye, not measured.  Ten half-fathom strings of terkutem were equal to about one 13-string of money; making a rate of an American dollar or less per yard [91 cm].

The Karok call dentalia ishpuk, the broken bead lengths apmananich.  The largest size of money shells is pisiwawa, the next pisiwawa afishni, the third shisharetiropaop.

All sizes of dentalia have depreciated since first contact with the whites, so that valuations given to-day in terms of American money fluctuate; but the following appear to have been the approximate early ratings, which in recent years have become reduced about one-half:

To string. Value of shell. Value of string.
11 $5.00 $50.00
12 2.00 20.00
13 1.00 10.00
14 .50 5.00
15 .25 2.50

From this it is clear that an increase in length of shell sufficient to reduce by one the number of pieces required to fill a standard string about doubled its value.

Dentalia of the largest size were exceedingly scarce.  A string of them might now and then be paid for a wife by a man of great prominence; but never two strings.  Possession of a pair of such strings was sufficient to make a man well known.

Shells are often but not always incised with fine lines or angles, and frequently slipped into the skin of a minute black and red snake, and wound spirally with strips of this skin.  The ends of the cord are usually knotted into a minute tuft of scarlet woodpecker down.  All these little devices evince the loving attention with which this money was handled but do not in the least enhance its value.

As might be expected, the value of dentalia was greater in California than among the northern tribes at the source of supply.  In Washington or northern Oregon, as among the Yurok, a slave was rated at a string; but the northern string was about a fathom [183 cm] long.  Among the Nutka, money was still cheaper: it took 5 fathoms of it [9.1 m] to buy a slave.

The size of the shells used in the north has, however, not been accurately determined.  For the Oregon-Washington region, 40 shells were reckoned to the fathom, which gives an individual length averaging at the lowest limit of what the Yurok accepted as money, or even a little less.  In British Columbia it is stated that 25 pieces must stretch a fathom.  This would yield an average of considerably over 2½ inches [6.35 cm], or more than the very longest shells known to the Yurok.  It may be added that the fathom measure was in constant use among the Yurok for almost everything but money.

The actual valuing of dentalia was individual or in groups of fives, the length of men's arms being too variable and the size of shells too irregular to permit of exact appraisals by treating a string as a unit.  The shells on a cord were therefore turned over and matched against each other, and then laid against the fingers from crease to crease of the joints.  The largest size was gauged from the farther crease of the little finger to the fold in the palm below; according to some accounts, the measure was also taken on the index.  Other sizes were matched against the middle finger.  A shell from a full 13-piece string was supposed to extend precisely from the base of this finger to the last crease and was called wetlemek wega.  A 12-to-the-string shell, of course, passed beyond.

Measurement was also by fives, from the end of the thumbnail to a series of lines tattooed across the forearm.  These indelible marks were made from fives of known value, and served as a standard not dependent on bodily peculiarities.

The generic Yurok name for dentalium is tsik.  Since the coming of the whites it has also been known as otl we-tsik, “human beings their dentalium,” that is, “Indian money,” in distinction from American coins.  The early settlers corrupted this to “allicocheek,” used the term to the Indians, and then came to believe that it was a native designation common to all the diverse languages of the region.

Dentalium is frequently personified by the Yurok.  Pelin-tsiek, “Great Dentalium,” enters frequently into their myths as if he were a man, and in some versions is almost a creator.  Tego'o is also a character in legend.

All other shells were insignificant beside dentalia in Yurok consideration.  Olivellas were strung and used for ornament, but did not rate as currency.  Haliotis, which seems to have been imported from the coast to the south of Cape Mendocino, was liberally used on the fringe of Yurok women's dresses, on ear pendants, in the inlay of pipes, and the like.  But it also never became money and did not nearly attain the value of good dentalia.  Now and then a short length of disk beads from central California penetrated to the Yurok, but as a prized variety rather than an article of recognized value.

A myth, told, it may be noted, by a Coast Yurok of Eshpeu married at Orekw, narrates how the dentalia journeyed by the shore from the north.  At the mouth of the Klamath the small shells went south along the coast, but Pelintsiek and Tego'o continued up the river.  At Ho'opeu and Serper Tego'o wished to enter, at Turip his larger companion; but in each case the other refused.  At Ko'otep and Shreggon they went in.  Pekwan they did not enter, but said that it would contain money.  Nohtsku'm and Meta they passed by.  At Murekw they entered, as at Sa'a and Wa'asei, and left money.  At Kenek, Pelintsiek wished to leave money, but apparently did not do so.  At Wahsekw and again at Weitspus they went in and left three shells.  At Pekwututl also they entered, and there the story ends with Pelintsiek's saying that some money must continue upstream (to the Karok) and up the Trinity to the Hupa.  The tale records the Yurok idea as to the situation of wealth; it illustrates their interest in money; and although a somewhat extreme example, is a characteristic representation of their peculiar mythology, with its minimum of plot interest, intense localization, and rationalizing accounting of particular human institutions.

Treasure   by A. L. Kroeber

Of articles other than shells, those that approach nearest to the character of money are woodpecker scalps.  These are of two sizes, both of them scarlet and beautifully soft: those from the larger bird are slightly more brilliant.  These two kinds of scalp are known as kokoneu (Karok: furah) and terker'it.  The former are rated at $1 to $1.50 each, the latter variously at 10, 15, and 25 cents.  The native ratio seems to have been 6 to 1.  Woodpecker scalps differ from dentalia in that they have value as material, being worked into magnificent dance headdresses, and used as trimming on other regalia.  They represent the Yurok idea of the acme of splendor.  Dentalium currency is never worn or exhibited in display, and being entirely without intrinsic utility or ornamental possibility, is wholly and purely money.

Deerskins of rare colors and large blades of obsidian and flint possessed high values; in fact, all objects carried in dances represented wealth.  But these articles varied so greatly according to color, size, fineness, or workmanship, that their civilized equivalents are jewels rather than money.  At the same time, there was a strong tendency, as can be seen from the examples below, to make part of every payment of consequence in a variety of articles.  When large sums changed ownership, as in the purchase of a high-class wife or settlement for the death of a rich man, not more than about half the total seems to have been in dentalia.  In the same way strings paid over were of graduated sizes, not all of one value.  These facts indicate that a proper variety and balance of wealth as well as quantity were considered desirable.

Even a common deerskin represented value when prepared for dance use.  Besides the hide, there was the labor of stuffing the head, and woodpecker scalps were needed for eyes, ears, throat, and tongue.  An unusually light or dark skin was worth more, and those that the Yurok call “gray” and “black” and “red” are estimated at $50 to $100.  A pure albino skin, with transparent hoofs, is rated at $250 to $500.  But this is a theoretic valuation given for the sake of comparison.  The Yurok state that fine white skins did not change ownership.  Their possession was known far and wide and to part with one on any consideration would have been equivalent to a king selling his crown.  (Pls. 2, 3.)

Similarly with obsidians.  The usual statement that these are worth $1 an inch of length is true for blades of half a foot to a foot.  A 20-inch piece, however, would be held at about $50, and the few renowned giants that reach 30 and even 33 inches are, from the native point of view, inestimable.  The above applies to black obsidian.  The red, which is rarer and does not come in as large pieces, is worth considerably more.  Most valuable of all are the blades of white flint, which can not be chipped quite as evenly as the obsidian, but can be worked broader and somewhat thinner.  The largest of these run to about a foot and a half long.


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