Our world began long before non-Indian exploration and settlement occurred in our area.
At one time our people lived in over fifty villages throughout our ancestral territory. The laws, health and spirituality of our people were untouched by non-Indians.
Culturally, our people are known as great fishermen, eelers, basket weavers, canoe makers, storytellers, singers, dancers, healers and strong medicine people. Before we were given the name “Yurok” we referred to ourselves and others in our area using our Indian language. When we refer to ourselves we say Oohl, meaning Indian people.
When we reference people from down river on the Klamath we call them Pue-lik-lo’ (Down River Indian), those on the upper Klamath and Trinity are Pey-cheek-lo’ (Up River Indian) and on the coast Ner-‘er-ner’ (Coast Indian). The Klamath-Trinity River is the lifeline of our people because the majority of the food supply, like ney-puy (salmon), Kaa-ka (sturgeon) and kwor-ror (candlefish) are offered to us from these rivers. Also, important to our people are the foods which are offered from the ocean and inland areas such as pee-ee (mussels), chey-gel’ (seaweed), woo-mehl (acorns), puuek (deer), mey-weehl (elk), ley-chehl (berries), and wey-yok-seep (teas). These foods are essential to our people’s health, wellness and religious ceremonies. Our way was never to over harvest and to always ensure sustainability of our food supply for future generations.
Our traditional family homes and sweathouses are made from fallen keehl (redwood trees) which are then cut into redwood boards. Before contact, it was common for every village to have several family homes and sweathouses. Today, only a small number of villages with traditional family homes and sweathouses remain intact. Our traditional stories teach us that the redwood trees are sacred living beings. Although, we use them in our homes and canoes, we also respect redwood trees because they stand as guardians over our sacred places. The yoch (canoe) makers are recognized for their intuitive craftsmanship. The primary function of the canoes is to get people up and down the river and for ocean travel. The canoe is also very important to the White Deerskin Dance, a ceremony recently rejuvenated.The canoes are used to transport dancers and ceremonial people. The traditional money used by Yurok people is terk-term (dentalia shell), which is a shell harvested from the ocean. The dentalia used on necklaces are most often used in traditional ceremonies, such as the u pyue-wes (White Deerskin Dance), woo-neek-we-ley-goo (Jump Dance) and mey-lee (Brush Dance). It was standard years ago, to use dentalia to settle debts, pay dowry, and purchase large or small items needed by individuals or families.
Tattoos on men’s arms measured the length of the dentalia.
Yurok did not experience non-Indian exploration until much later than other tribal groups in California and the United States.
One of the first documented visits in the local area was by the Spanish in the 1500s. 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 furs with the coastal people. However, for unknown reasons tensions grew and the American expedition was cut short. The expeditions increased over the next few years and resulted in a dramatic decrease of furs in the area.
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 and Orleans. 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. With the surge of settlers moving in the government was pressured to change laws to better protect the Yurok from loss of land and assault.
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.
The gold mining expeditions resulted in the destruction of villages, loss of life and a culture 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 who were fighting settlers.
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 evict squatters and use military force. 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 up and coming mills on the Reservation.
This industry went through cycles of success, 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 opposed non-Indians taking of the salmon and asserted that they did not have the right to take fish from the river because it is 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 style of teaching was to eliminate the continued use of cultural and religious teachings that Indian children’s 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 violence being brought against them 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 disguised 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 ways. The younger generations of Yurok who survived these eras became strong advocates (as elders) for cultural revitalization.
Similar to other tribal groups in California, Yurok people overcame the destruction of their villages, and assimilation attempts by non-Indians. Many Yurok people went to extreme measures to hold on to their traditional ways. When government policy forbade the use of traditional languages and outlawed the practice of traditional ceremonies, Yurok people continued. Some dances stopped while others were revitalized. Most importantly, the knowledge and beliefs continued and eventually reappeared and have remained constant.
The late 1970s and 80s were a time when the revitalization effort soared in the local area. The Jump Dance returned to Pek-won in 1984, a War Dance demonstration was held in the late 1980s, and communities came together to support the revitalization of Brush Dances along the river and the coast. In the year 2000, the White Deerskin Dance was held again at the village of Weych-pues. For several generations there were times of darkness – no cultural traditions being passed on and the language slowly fading away. With so few Yurok families able to hold onto traditional ways, it appeared as though the attempts to eliminate the cultural traditions would be successful. With the help of many elders (who have since passed on), a glimpse of light began t0 emerge. Young people who were eager to learn Yurok traditions did so and for the past twenty years Yurok traditional ceremonies have continued.
The use of the Yurok language dramatically decreased when non-Indians settled in the Yurok territory. By the early 1900s the Yurok language was near extinction. It took less than 40 years for the language to reach that level. It took another 70 years for the Yurok language to recover. When the language revitalization effort began the use of old records helped new language learners. However, it was through hearing fluent speakers that many young learners fluency level increased.
When the Yurok Tribe began to operate as a formal tribal government a language program was created.
In 1996 the Yurok Tribe received assistance from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA). With the development of a Long Range Restoration Plan a survey was completed and the results showed that there were only 20 fluent speakers and 12 semi-fluent speakers of the Yurok language. After a decade of language restoration activities, the Tribe most recently documented that there are now only 11 fluent Yurok speakers, but now have 37 advanced speakers, 60 intermediate speakers and approximately 311 basic speakers. The Yurok Tribe continues to look to new approaches like the use of digital technology, internet sites, short stories, and supplemental curriculum. The Tribe continues to increase the number of language classes taught on and off the Reservation, at local schools for young learners and at community classes.
The Yurok Tribe is currently the largest Tribe in California, with more than 5,000 enrolled members. The Tribe provides numerous services to the local community and membership with its more than 200 employees. The Tribe’s major initiatives include: the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, dam removal, natural resources protection, sustainable economic development enterprises and land acquisition.