The Yurok

Yurok people have lived in Northwestern California along the Redwood Coast and the Klamath River since Noohl Hee-Kon (time immemorial). Traditionally Yurok people living on the upper region of the Klamath River are Pe-cheek-lah, lower region of the Klamath River Puelik-lah, and the coast, Ner-er-ner. Oohl, translates to mean Indian people, and describes the entirety of the Yurok people. The name Yurok comes from the Karuk word for “downriver”, this is the most widely used word to describe the Tribe and people.

“The Ancestral Lands of the Yurok Tribe extend unbroken along the Pacific Ocean coast(including usual and customary off¬shore fishing areas) from Damnation Creek, its northern boundary, to the southern boundary of the Little River drainage basin, and unbroken along the Klamath River, including both sides and its bed, from its mouth upstream to and including the Bluff Creek drainage basin. Included within these lands are the drainage basin of Wilson Creek, the drainage basins of all streams entering the Klamath River from its mouth upstream to and including the Bluff Creek and Slate Creek drainage basins, including the village site at Big Bar (except for the drainage basin upstream from the junction of Pine Creek and Snow Camp Creek), and the Canyon Creek (also known as Tank Creek) drainage basin of the Trinity River, the drainage basins of streams entering the ocean or lagoons between the Klamath River and Little River (except for the portion of the Redwood Creek drainage basin beyond the McArthur Creek drainage basin, and except for the portion of the Little River drainage basin which lies six miles up from the ocean). Our Ancestral Lands include all submerged lands, and the beds, banks and waters of all the tributaries within the territory just described. Also included within the Ancestral Lands is a shared interest with other tribes in ceremonial high country sites and trails as known by the Tribe, as well as the Tribes usual and customary hunting, fishing and gathering sites. The Ancestral Lands are depicted on the “Map of Yurok Ancestral Lands”, on file in the Yurok Tribal Offices” (Constitution of the Yurok Tribe Art. 1, Sec. 1).

There are more than70 known villages within the ancestral territory, most of which are situated along the Klamath River and along the Pacific Coast (Waterman 1920). Within each village, houses were constructed primarily of redwood and each house had a name. Families and descendants are associated with these specific house names (Waterman 1920: 208). Families and/or houses within villages owned specific resource gathering areas such as fishing holes, acorn-gathering spots, trapping areas, and hunting locations. Glen Moore Sr., who was from the village of Srey-gon explained in an interview in 1996 that, “most Indian people had fishing spots, they have the right to fish. Sometimes its [fishing hole] is handed down through relations. You can give a fishing place to someone else” (Moore 1996). The sweathouse is another structure found within each village. Men typically did not spend the night in a family house, instead they stayed in the sweathouse. The sweathouse was also used for ceremonial purposes such as purification before hunting or ceremonies.

Yurok villages situated along river and coastal lines tend to be located near resource gathering areas such as good fishing access or coastal gathering sites. River villages tend to be on ancient river terraces and decrease in elevation the further down river they are located, providing easy access to fishing holes. Coastal villages are situated along lagoons or mouths of rivers, adding additional food resources to ones provided by the ocean. The mountain areas above the coastal and riparian areas were mostly used for gathering and hunting (Waterman 1920: 183, Bearss 1969).

The Yurok ancestral land is approximately 1,148 square miles (Pilling, 1978) with villages placed along the Klamath River and Pacific Ocean. Despite such a large land base, the Klamath River remains the heart of Yurok ancestral land and serves as the “highway” for Yurok people. Walt McCovey Jr in a 1996 interview explained, “That river is in the life of Indian people, we depend on the fish, depend on eels, sturgeon” (McCovey 1996). Redwood dugout canoes are utilized to travel on the River and off shore in the Ocean. Canoes could be as large as 20ft long and 5ft wide (James 1997). Also, an elaborate trail system exists connecting villages, prayer sites and gathering areas (Waterman 1920). Trails were to be treated with respect and travelers are to stay within the trail (Waterman 1920:185).

The river is vital part of Yurok life providing food resources such as salmon, sturgeon, eel and other fish. Gill nets, dip nets, weirs, basket traps, and hooks are used to obtain fish from the River. On the coast, many species are harvested for consumption, including mussels, clams, seaweed, and many other resources. The primary game are deer and elk, but other smaller animals are also utilized. The other primary food source for the Yurok is acorns. Acorn gathering grounds and camps are found throughout the mountains in Yurok territory. Acorns are processed into a mush, which is cooked in large baskets with hot stones.

Yurok did not have contact with non-Indian explorers until much later than other tribal groups in California. One of the first documented visits in the local area was by the Spanish in the 1700s. When Spanish explorers Don Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Cuadra arrived in the early 1700s, they intruded upon the people of Chue-rey village. This visit resulted in Bodega laying claim by mounting a cross at Trinidad Head.

In the early 1800s, the first American ship visited the area of Trinidad and Big Lagoon. Initially, the Americans traded for sea otter fur with the coastal people. However, for unknown reasons tensions grew and the American expeditions were cut short.

By 1828, the area was gaining attention because of the reports back from the American expeditions, despite the news that the local terrain was rough. The most well-known trapping expedition of this era was led by Jedediah Smith. Smith guided a team of trappers through the local area, coming down through the Yurok village of Kep’-el, crossing over Bald Hills and eventually making their way to the villages of O men and O men hee-puer on the coast. Smith’s expedition, though brief, was influential to all other trappers and explorers. The reports from Smith’s expedition resulted in more trappers exploring the area and eventually leading to an increase in non-Indian settlement.

By 1849, settlers were quickly moving into Northern California because of the discovery of gold at Gold Bluffs near present day Orick and Orleans on the Klamath River. Yurok and settlers traded goods and Yurok assisted with transporting items via dugout canoe. However, this relationship quickly changed as more settlers moved into the area and demonstrated hostility toward Indian people. The rough terrain of the local area did not deter settlers in their pursuit of gold. They moved through the area and encountered camps of Indian people. Hostility from both sides caused much bloodshed and loss of life. With the surge of settlers, the government was pressured to change laws to better protect the Yurok from loss of land and assault.

The gold mining expeditions resulted in the destruction of villages, loss of life, and a culture which was severely fragmented. By the end of the gold rush era at least 75% of the Yurok people died due to massacres and disease, while other tribes in California saw a 95% loss of life. While miners established camps along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, the federal government worked toward finding a solution to the conflicts, which dramatically increased as each new settlement was established.

The government sent Indian agent Redick McKee to initiate treaty negotiations. Initially, local tribes were resistant to come together; some outright opposed meeting with the agent. The treaties negotiated by McKee were sent to Congress, which was inundated with complaints from settlers claiming the Indians were receiving an excess of valuable land and resources. The Congress rejected the treaties and failed to notify the tribes of this decision. In 1855, a group of “vigilante” Indians (who were known as Red Cap Indians) initiated a revolt against settlers.

The Red Cap Indians were believed to be a mix of tribal groups. The Red Cap War nearly brought a halt to the non-Indians settlement effort. The government was able to suppress the Red Cap Indians and regained control over the upper Yurok Reservation.

The Federal Government established the Yurok Reservation in 1855 and immediately Yurok people were confined to the area. The Reservation was considerably smaller than the Yurok original ancestral territory. This presented a hardship for Yurok families who traditionally lived in villages along the Klamath River and northern Pacific coastline. When Fort Terwer was established, many Yurok families were relocated and forced to learn farming and the English language.

In January 1862, the Fort was washed away by flood waters, along with the Indian agency at Wau-kell flat. Several Yurok people were relocated to the newly established Reservation in Smith River that same year. However, the Smith River Reservation was closed in July 1867. Once the Hoopa Valley Reservation was established, many Yurok people were sent to live there, as were the Mad River, Eel River and Tolowa Indians.

In the years following the opening of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, several squatters on the Yurok Reservation continued to farm and fish in the Klamath River. The government’s response was to use military force in order to try to evict squatters. Many squatters did not vacate and waited for military intervention, which was slow to come. In the interim, the squatters pursued other avenues to acquire land.

The Fort and Agency were built from redwood, which was an abundant resource and culturally significant to Yurok. Non-Indians pursued the timber industry and hired local Indian men to work in the new mills established on the Reservation. This industry went through cycles of success and failure, and was largely dependent on the needs of the nation. At the time, logging practices were unregulated and resulted in the contamination of the Klamath River, depletion of the salmon population, and destruction of Yurok village sites and sacred areas.

The Yurok canneries were established near the mouth of the Klamath River beginning in 1876. The Yurok people were opposed to non-Indians taking salmon, and asserted that they did not have the right to take fish from the river because it was an inherent right of the Yurok people.

Western education was imposed on Yurok children beginning in the late 1850s at Fort Terwer and at the Agency Office at Wauk-ell. This form of education continued until the 1860s when the Fort and Agency were washed away. Yurok children, sent to live at the Hoopa Valley Reservation continued to be taught by missionaries. The goal of the missionary teaching was to eliminate the continued use of cultural and religious teachings that Indian families taught. Children were abused by missionaries for using the Yurok language and observing cultural and ceremonial traditions.

In the late 1800s children were removed from the Reservation to Chemawa in Oregon and Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. Today, many elders look back on this period in time as a horrifying experience because they lost their connection to their families, and their culture. Many were not able to learn the Yurok language and did not participate in ceremonies for fear of abuse by non-Indians. Some elders went to great lengths to escape from the schools, traveling hundreds of miles to return home to their families. They lived with the constant fear of being caught and returned to the school. Families often hid their children when they saw government officials.

Over time, the use of boarding schools declined and day schools were established on the Yurok Reservation. Elders recall getting up early in the morning, traveling by canoe to the nearest day school, and returning home late at night. The fact that they were at day schools did not eliminate the constant pressure to forget their language and culture. Families hid the practice of teaching traditional ways, while others succumbed to the western philosophy of education and left their traditional ways behind. Eventually, Indian children were granted permission to enroll in public schools. Although they were granted access, many faced harsh prejudice and stereotypes. These hardships plagued Indian students for generations, and are major factors in the decline of the Yurok language and traditional culture. The younger generations of Yurok who survived these eras became strong advocates (as elders) for cultural revitalization. (Yurok Tribe 2007).