Yurok - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Yurok myths ascribed creation to Wohpekumew, "widower across the ocean." Their world was thought to float on water, and, as Kroeber related, "at the head of the river in the sky, where the Deerskin dance is danced nightly, are a gigantic white coyote and his yellow mate." Yurok dances expressed their beliefs. The motive of such dances was to renew or maintain the world, beginning with the reciting of long formulae, after which a dance ensued. Dances were of various lengths, but could last ten or more days. Each dance had a strict style of regalia, and the wealthy would display their treasures. There were two main kinds of dances: the White Deerskin Dance and the Jumping Dance. The latter usually followed the White Deerskin Dance, and the ceremonies related to the dances intensified as each day passed. A Deerskin Dance also marked the most famous ceremony of the Yurok, the building of a salmon dam at Kepel in early autumn. This preceded the Yurok's first salmon ceremony, held at a small village near the mouth of the Klamath River each April. After days of recitation by a formulist, a salmon was cooked and ritually consumed, thus signifying the opening of the fishing season for upstream Yurok villages.

Religious Practitioners. Among the Yurok were formulists, usually old men who could recite formulae for various events, such as releasing a person from corpse contamination. The Yurok also believed in sorcerers who caused various evil occurrences. Women usually functioned as "doctors," or shamans. They relieved "pain" for high fees; unsuccessful shamans were not killed as they were in some other California Indian groups. True to Yurok law, they were, however, liable for several forms of compensation if the patient died or remained ill.

Ceremonies. In addition to the dances noted above, the Yurok also held "brush dances," apparently designed to cure a sick child, but also held when younger men in the village desired a holiday. The other dances were once held annually but later took place only in alternate years. The last first salmon ceremony took place around 1865. The other dances have not been performed in Yurok territory since 1939, although Pilling has described a revival of Yurok ceremonialism in the 1970s.

Arts. Only men could dance in Yurok ceremonies, and some served as singers who constantly composed new songs during the dances.

Medicine. Women "doctors," or shamans, smoked pipes as part of curing rituals, which also involved sucking out the patient's pain. Disease was caused by breaking taboos or Ceremonial regulations. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, the sick person "confessed" wrongdoings to the doctor, followed by positive prayer as part of the cure.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the body was painted with soot and a dentalium shell inserted through the nasal septum. Great efforts were made to avoid contamination through contact with the corpse. Burial was in town cemeteries, often in small plots where several bodies might occupy a single grave. The dead were thought to go "below" where the dead Yurok had to cross a river on a boat. If the boat tipped over, the corpse was revived on earth. Once the river had been crossed, however, return was impossible. The dead were ascribed to three types of afterlife: those killed by weapons went to "the willows," forever dancing and shouting in a war dance; thieves and "contentious" persons went to an "inferior place"; and a rich, peaceable man went to "the sky."


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