The Yurok, whose name means "downriver people" in the neighboring Karuk language (also called yuh'ára, or yurúkvaarar in Karuk), are Native Americans who live in northwestern California near the Klamath River and Pacific coast. Their autonym is Olekwo'l meaning "Persons." Today they live on the Yurok Indian Reservation, on several rancherías, including the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, throughout Humboldt County, and beyond. They are enrolled in seven different federally recognized tribes today. They ate lots of berries and meats, but whale meat was prized above others. Yuroks did not hunt whales, instead, they waited until a dead whale washed up onto the beach or place near the water and dried the flesh.
Traditionally, the Yurok lived in permanent villages along the Klamath River. Some of the villages date back to the 14th century. They fished for salmon along rivers, gathered ocean fish and shellfish, hunted game, and gathered plants. The major currency of the Yurok nations was the dentalium shell. Alfred L. Kroeber wrote of the Yurok perception of the shell: "Since the direction of these sources is 'downstream' to them, they speak in their traditions of the shells living at the downstream and upstream ends of the world, where strange but enviable peoples live who suck the flesh of univalves."
Their first contact with non-Natives was when Spanish explorers entered their territory in 1775. Fur traders and trappers from the Hudson's Bay Company came in 1827. Following encounters with white settlers moving into their aboriginal lands during a gold rush in 1850, the Yurok were faced with disease and massacres that reduced their population by 75%. In 1855, following the Klamath and Salmon River War, the Lower Klamath River Indian Reservation was created by executive order. The Reservation boundaries included a portion of the Yurok's aboriginal territory and most of the Yurok villages. As a result, the Yurok people were not forcibly removed from their traditional homelands. They continue to live in these same villages today.
On November 24, 1993, the Yurok Tribe adopted a constitution that details the jurisdiction and territory of their lands. Under the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act of 1988, Pub. L. 100-580, qualified applicants had the option of enrolling in the Yurok Tribe. Of the 3,685 qualified applicants for the Settlement Roll, 2,955 people chose Yurok membership. 227 of those members had a mailing address on the Yurok reservation, but a majority lived within 50 miles of the reservation. The Yurok Tribe is currently the largest group of Native Americans in the state of California, with over 5,000 enrolled members. The Yurok reservation of 63,035 acres (25,509 ha) has an 80% poverty rate and 70% of the inhabitants do not have telephone service or electricity, according to the tribe's Web page.
Fishing, hunting, and gathering remain important to tribal members. Basket weaving and woodcarving are important arts. A traditional hamlet of wooden plank buildings, called Sumeg, was built in 1990. The Jump Dance and Brush Dance are part of tribal ceremonies.
Yurok is one of two Algic languages spoken in California, the other being Wiyot. Between twenty and one hundred people speak the Yurok language today. The language is passed on through master-apprentice teams and through singing. Language classes have been offered through Humboldt State University and through annual language immersion camps.
An unusual feature of the language is that certain nouns change depending upon whether there is one, two, or three of the object. For instance, one human being would be ko:ra or ko'r' ould be nahkseyt.
Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber put the 1770 population of the Yurok at 2500. Sherburne F. Cook initially agreed, but later raised this estimate to 3100.
The United States Census for the year 2000 indicates that there were 4413 Yurok living in California, combining those of one tribal descent and those with ancestors of several different tribes and groups. There were 5,793 Yurok living throughout the United States. The Yurok Indian Reservation is California’s largest tribe, with almost 6000 members.
Today Yurok people are enrolled in seven federally recognized tribes:
In 2010, 217 sacred artifacts were returned to the Yurok tribe by the Smithsonian Institution. The condor feathers, headdresses and deerskins had been part of the Smithonian's collection for almost 100 years and represent one of the largest Native American repatriations. The regalia will be used in Yurok ceremonies and on display at the tribe's cultural center.
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