Karok - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. No creation myth has been recorded for the Karok; however, many myths relate the deeds of the ' ikxareeyavs, a prehuman race which ordained the characteristics of the present world. At a certain moment, the human species came spontaneously into existence, and at the same time the 'ikxareeyavs were transformed into prototypes of the animals and plants that now exist (and, in some cases, into geographical features or disembodied spirits). In an especially large and popular class of myths, Coyote ordains the principal features of human culture, but is at the same time trickster and buffoon. The recitation of certain myths and the singing of associated songs were believed to confer magical success in hunting, gambling, and love. Following White contact, many Karok became Christians, at least nominally; but native beliefs survived underground and have surfaced in the Present-day revival of interest in ritual and shamanism.

Religious Practitioners. Annual ceremonies were presided over by priests, with their male and female assistants; these positions were not permanent, but were assigned each year by community consensus. Shamans were of two types: (1) the "sucking doctor," usually female, who used a spirit helper to extract disease objects from the bodies of patients, and (2) the "herb doctor," of either sex, who administered herbal medicine along with recitation of magical formulas. Finally, some individuals (of either sex) were believed to have secret powers of witchcraft, which they could use maliciously to make their neighbors sicken and die; these witches were greatly feared.

Ceremonies. The principal Karok rites concerned "renewing the world" and ensuring its stability between annual observances. These were correlated with the seasonal availability of major food resources such as salmon and acorns and involved ritual activity by priests and priestesses, along with feasting, display of wealth, and dancing to the accompaniment of songs. Best known is the autumn Deerskin Dance, when the skins of albino deer were displayed as wealth objects. Less important were the Brush Dance, held to cure a sick child; the Kick Dance, to initiate a sucking doctor; and the Flower Dance, celebrating a girl's first menstruation. In modern times, the Brush Dance has survived partly as a social and recreational function; and since the 1970s, the autumn ceremony of world renewal, with its Deerskin Dance, has been performed in several traditional sites.

Arts. Singing was considered to have magical power—as an accompaniment to ceremonial dances, as an interpolation in the recitation of myths and magical formulas, and as an accompaniment to gambling. The recitation of myths itself was of considerable ritual importance. Visual arts were limited to body ornamentation (important in ceremonies) and basketry design. In modern times, knowledge and interest continue particularly in Brush Dance songs and performance.

Medicine. The two major types of aboriginal shamanism have been described above. It was believed that serious illness was usually caused by a supernatural "pain" or disease object, lodged in the patient's body. In children, illness could also be caused by wrongdoing on the part of a family member; when the shaman elicited a public confession, the child would recover. Shamans' fees were paid before treatment, but had to be refunded if the patient died. Since White contact, native medical practice has declined in importance, but nowadays some interest exists in reviving it.

Death and Afterlife. The bodies of the dead were buried with the observance of many taboos—for example, mourners were forbidden to engage in hunting, gathering, basket making, travel, sex, or gambling. After five days, the spirit of the deceased was believed to go to the sky, where an especially happy place was reserved for rich people and ceremonial leaders. If anyone in a community wished to sponsor a dance within a year after someone's death, the mourners had to be paid an indemnity. Uttering the name of a dead person was a serious insult; whether done deliberately or by accident, it had to be compensated by payments to the survivors.

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