Location: Northwestern California (Del Norte & Humboldt Counties)
Language: Algonquian family
1770 estimate: 2,500
1910 Census: 700
The Yurok had many customs that were like those of the native people of the northern Pacific Coast, along what is now Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island. The tools that they made were nicely finished and often decorated. Money was very important; every person and every action had a measured value. A rigid, detailed code of rights and laws covered everything in life. These things set the Yurok apart from many other early Californians.
Yurok villages were either along the Klamath River or on the shore of the ocean. Land back in the hills away from the river or ocean was used only for hunting or gathering food and firewood. The villages ranged in size from 3 to 24 houses.
Not only did the villages have names, but the Yurok also named each house site. These house site names were based on their size or location or something that happened there, such as narrow, trail descends, or where they prepared for dancing. Property was owned by individuals. Though individuals lived in groups, the villages had no government.
The names that the Yurok used for each other were short phrases referring to where the person lived, such as old man at Wahsekw or proud one of Meta. Instead of referring to places as north, south, east or west, the Yurok thought in terms of flowing water, saying downstream or upstream or across the stream. The name Yurok meant downstream.
The Yurok house was built of redwood planks split from logs with wedges, and held together by squared poles tied with grapevines. The walls were low. The door was a round hole about two feet in diameter, located a few inches above ground level.
Inside the house, a pit several feet deep was dug, leaving a wide shelf around the room. People used a notched log ladder to climb down inside. In a fire pit in the center, food was cooked by hanging it on poles over the fire. The women and children worked, ate, and slept here. Utensils and baskets for food were stored on the wide shelf.
Each village had several sweathouses, smaller than the family houses and dug out inside to about four feet below the ground. A fire of fir branches heated the sweathouse with thick smoke. Each sweathouse had seven sleeping places where men and boys slept, except when the weather was very warm.
Acorns were the main food of the Yurok, with fish (mostly salmon) also important to them. Deer were plentiful, and were caught with snares. Bulbs were dug in early summer, and seeds were gathered. Salt was furnished by a seaweed which was dried in round blackish cakes. When a whale was washed up on the shore, the Yurok dried the flesh. They prized whale meat above all other food, but they never hunted whales.
The Yurok used nets as well as harpoons for fishing. Nets were made of string rolled from fibers of a leaf. The salmon harpoon had a slender shaft over 20 feet long, with barbs of bone or horn.
The Yurok used deerskins to make clothes. Young men usually folded a deerskin around their hips. Older men were apt to wear nothing. Women wore bark skirts or deerskin aprons slit into fringes, and a small round cap woven like a basket. Women often decorated their dresses with shells and seeds. In cold weather, both men and women put blankets of deerskin over their shoulders. The people used moccasins made of deerskin only when going on long walks. When the men went into the hills in winter to hunt, they made snowshoes from branches and grapevines. They also wore short buckskin leggings for warmth.
The chins of Yurok women were tattooed with three stripes, so broad that they covered almost the entire chin, going down from the corners of the mouth.
Baskets made by the Yuroks were finely done by the method called twining. New slender hazel and willow branches were used for the vertical supports of the basket; split roots of pine, redwood, or spruce were woven around the hazel branches. Decoration was done with strands of beargrass or fern stems, and red dye made from alder bark. Baskets were used for gathering, cooking, and storing food. Baskets for carrying things (burden baskets) were cone-shaped and hung across the shoulders from a strap over the forehead. Babies were carried in baskets made from hazel sticks.
Elk horn was used as a tool for making flints, and as spoons used by men. Mussel shells were used by women for scraping roots and as spoons. The Yuroks, unlike many early Californians, used spoons rather than fingers for eating their acorn mush. The elk horn spoons had handles carved in decorative patterns. The long "mush paddle" with which they stirred the acorn mush had geometric decorations.
Yurok canoes were dug out of half of a redwood log, using fire and a stone-handled tool of mussel shell. The canoes were used both on the ocean and the rivers. They had square prows and round bottoms. Usually, two people paddled the canoe, one seated with a steering paddle, the other standing with a stout pole, 6-8 feet long.
The Yurok did not often fight. When there was a conflict, the weapons used were the bow and arrow, and a short stone club called okawaya. To protect their bodies in a fight, the men wore vests made of thick elk hide or of rods bound together with string.
The money of the Yurok was dentalium shells, tube-shaped mollusk shells found in the sand under deep ocean water. The Yurok got the shells from tribes further north. The hollow shells were strung on strings about 27 inches long. The larger the shells, the more valuable the string was. A string would hold 11 of the largest shells or 15 of the smaller shells. A boat might be traded for two 12-shell strings. A wife from a good family might cost ten strings of varying sizes, plus other items of value.
Also highly valued by the Yurok were woodpecker scalps, which were used in dance headdresses, and deerskins that were either very light or very dark in color. A white deerskin was a priceless possession that would never be given away by its owner.
A man's importance in the village depended on his wealth. Some wealthy men had slaves. A person became a slave because of an unpaid debt.
Ceremonies were held in an attempt to insure good crops or lots of salmon, or to prevent disasters. Most ceremonies began with an old man reciting a long memorized chant. Then a dance lasting for five or ten days was done by the men. The men displayed their most valued possessions at the dance.
In the autumn, the Yurok gathered for ten days for the Deerskin Dance in which white deerskins were used. A small whistle was played during parts of the Deerskin Dance. Here the people displayed their special deerskins and obsidian blades, showing what good luck had come to them.
At the Jumping Dance, which also lasted ten days, headdresses made with 70 redheaded woodpecker scalps were worn.