Yurok - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence tasks involved fishing, hunting, and gathering. Salmon was certainly the most important food source. Using nets, harpoons, weirs, and specially built platforms, the Yurok obtained large numbers of salmon in the spring and autumn runs. Yurok families often had a ton of dried salmon hanging from the house rafters. They also stored the dried salmon in baskets, separating each layer of fish with aromatic tree leaves; they believed the leaves "kept out the moths" (moth larvae would have eaten the fish), although the leaves may have added flavor to the dried fish. Other fish obtained by the Yurok included eels and sturgeon. They also hunted sea lions and prized the meat from stranded whales. Shellfish were collected, as were wild grass seeds, bulbs, and water lilies. Salt was extracted from seaweed. Deer were hunted with the use of dogs and were usually snared rather than shot. Acorns were collected in the fall from groves usually owned by the village, but sometimes individually owned; some oak groves away from the river or between Yurok villages were said to be open to "everybody." Specific rights were held for certain fishing spots, and conflict often erupted if a spot was used without authorization or if a new fishing locale was established downstream. These were time-honored rights, often inherited within family groups.

Contemporary Yurok of both sexes work today as state and college bureaucrats, teachers, military officers, nurses, accountants, and in the fishing and lumber industries.

Industrial Arts. The Yurok were skilled workers of redwood for house planks, boats, paddles, storage boxes, and hunting and fishing devices. Basket weaving was also a major craft, with basketry items used as baby carriers, storage containers, and mush-cooking vessels. Surviving obsidian tools and salmon-butchering knives of flint also attest to their skills in chipping stone. Shells were strung on long cords to serve as currency. There seems to have been little craft specialization, aside from some men who traditionally made boats.

Trade. Obsidian did not occur within Yurok territory and had to be obtained from Medicine Lake, where it was quarried by the Achumawi and then traded through the Shasta and Karok before reaching the Yurok. Given the role of large obsidian bifaces in Yurok ceremony, this was a vital trade item. Additionally, dentalium shell, prized as Yurok currency, was traded down the Pacific coast from deep-water beds at the north end of Vancouver Island. The Yurok traded redwood boats of their manufacture to the Hupa, Tolowa, and Wiyot.

Division of Labor. Shamans could be either men or women. Men traditionally were the hunters, salmon fishers, and woodworkers. Women gathered shellfish and plant foods and used twined burden baskets for gathering firewood. Children collected acorns, roots, edible berries, and wild potatoes. Rich men manufactured ceremonial regalia, and some men specialized in boat making.

Land Tenure. Towns were usually inhabited by groups of related individuals and their families. Subsistence areas, such as fishing spots or acorn groves, could be owned by the town, by a group of men, or by an individual. Well-defined territorial boundaries existed between the Yurok and their neighbors, though some areas were open to all peoples or were neutral areas, and some were sacred zones. In 1875, nearly all of Yurok territory was placed in Humboldt County; today the Hoopa Valley reservations total more than eighty-seven thousand acres.


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