What is the Yurok Tribe?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

The Yurok Tribe is a Native American people of northern California, currently living in Del Norte County and Humboldt County. They are currently the largest group of Native Americans in the State of California. While Yurok means "downriver people," the tribe historically called itself Oohl, or "Indian people."

The Yurok fished for salmon.
The Yurok fished for salmon.

Historically, members of the Yurok Tribe were fishers, eelers, hunters, and gatherers, relying on the natural environment. Acorns and salmon were the main staples of the Yurok diet. The Indians also crafted canoes and baskets from natural materials, and family homes, sweat houses, and women's menstrual huts from fallen redwood trees.

Like many Native American groups, the Yurok used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.
Like many Native American groups, the Yurok used canoes for trade, fishing, and warfare.

Yurok Indians used dentalia shells, harvested from the ocean, as currency, and men tattooed their arms to indicate the length of dentalia shell strands they owned. Traditional dress included a deerskin loincloth and moccasins for men and heavily decorated, knee-length deerskin skirts for women. The Yurok Tribe also has a rich cultural tradition, including traditional healers and annual ceremonies such as the White Deerskin Dance, Jump Dance, and Brush Dance.

The Yurok Tribe did not have much contact with Europeans during the Mission period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but lost 75% of their population due to disease and massacre as a result of the influx of settlers during the California Gold Rush of 1849. In 1855, the remaining tribal members were relocated to the Yurok Indian Reservation on the Klamath River. In the late 19th century, Yurok children were relocated to various reservations and educational institutes to be educated in the missionary style, which suppressed their language and cultural traditions, often through abuse.

There are currently just under 5,000 enrolled members of the Yurok Tribe, with just over 1,000 living on the reservation. The poverty rate on the reservation is extremely high at 80%. The Yurok Tribe is dedicated to protecting the natural environment, and to revitalizing their language, religion, and cultural traditions to address the damage perpetrated by non-Indian settlers and the educational programs of the 19th century.

The Yurok language belongs to the Algic family, and is related to Algonquian languages like Blackfoot and Cree. It is severely endangered, with only 11 native speakers. However, there are about 300 basic speakers as a result of revitalization efforts, aided by the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) beginning in 1996. There are increasing numbers of language classes available to Yurok Tribe members, and the revitalization program makes use of modern technology such as Internet sites and digital media.

The Yurok Tribe is the largest group of Native Americans in California, living primarily in the northern part of the state.
The Yurok Tribe is the largest group of Native Americans in California, living primarily in the northern part of the state.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@KLR 650 - I live in California, and the Yuroks were trying to start a riverboat casino out here a year or so ago. The deal didn't go through for whatever reason. I also heard they were looking at building one on Oregon. Maybe they will have one eventually, but they don't have one now.

There are some shops on the reservation selling Yurok tribe clothing, moccasins, and jewelry. My mother bought some when she drove through there last year. So there are some tribal businesses, but they are still really poor. Hopefully they can turn things around.


@Viktor13 - It is a great thing that they are able to preserve some of their culture. I can definitely understand how they lost it in the first place. When so many of the tribe are living in poverty and hopelessness, things like tradition and culture can take a back seat to just getting through the day.

I wonder if they have given any thought to opening a casino? It sounds cliche, but lots of other tribes have been able to turn things around financially by doing that. Not only does it provide money for education, health care, and infrastructure on the reservation, it creates a ton of jobs too.


It's good to see that they are having some success keeping the Yurok tribe history alive. The fact that they have 300 people speaking the language now, even though there are only 11 native speakers remaining, is pretty impressive.

I saw a TV show that explained how tribes all over the world are losing their language and traditions as the older members die. It's good to see that at least some of the tribes are able to expand the number of people who know that language and history. Hopefully it's not too little, too late.

Post your comments
Forgot password?