Who are the Yurok Indians?

Micki Elizabeth

Yurok (pronounced YOOR-ock) is a tribe of Native American Indians that has long lived on the Pacific Coast of Northern California in America. Yurok, which means “downriver people," is from the Karok language; Karok means “upriver." The Yurok Indians’ culture went uninterrupted by non-natives for far longer than that of most other Native American tribes. Trappers in the early 19th century and the Gold Rush of the 1850s changed the way the Yurok lived.

The Yurok Indians hunted deer and other small game.
The Yurok Indians hunted deer and other small game.

The Yurok tribe spoke its own Macro-Algonquin language called “Yurok," which is closely related to the language of neighboring tribes. They built box-like, individual homes with chimneys and pitched roofs out of redwood trees; they used only trees that had already fallen, however, as the tribe considers redwoods sacred. While many men and women wore little to no clothing, the deerskin clothing they made was heavily ornamented with shells from the Pacific Coast.

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

For food, Yurok Indians relied mainly on acorns, which they could pound into a flour-like powder, and fish. They built canoes and used spears and nets to catch salmon, mollusks and other sea creatures. The men also hunted deer and other small game while the women collected nuts and berries to round out their diet.

Yurok villages were once ruled by the wealthiest man in each town. Thus, unlike many other Native American tribes, wealth was of importance to this group. The tribe’s monetary system was based on the shell of a mollusk known as the dentalium, though other measurements of wealth included items such as woodpecker scalps and obsidian. The Yurok Indians believed in what many consider modern ideas, including individually owned land and what one would today call a lawsuit.

While the Spanish and other non-native people did make infrequent visits to the Yurok Indians’ land beginning around the 1500s, the tribe went relatively unfettered until trappers arrived in the early 19th century. Even the rough terrain often inhabited by the Yurok did not deter the trappers, nor would it keep away the groups that flocked to the area during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. The Yurok Indians lost much of their land and about 75 percent of their population during the gold expeditions as they were forced onto reservations. Missionaries began to impose Western-style customs and education on the tribe around this time.

The Yurok Indians comprise the largest group of Native Americans in the state of California with over 4,400 in-state members. They live on the Yurok reservation, consisting of over 63,000 acres (25,495 hectares), on rancherias along with Native Americans from other tribes. In 1993, the Yurok Indians adopted their own constitution dealing with the laws of their territory. The residents of the Yurok Indian reservation are now ruled by a council that they may elect.

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