Reclaiming the Yurok Language and Culture
We were pleased today to see the Gensaw, Lara, Santsche, Swain, and Bailey kids working to preserve
their Yurok language and culture in this Access Humboldt video,
produced with fellow students at the Klamath River Early College
of the Redwoods.
Kids, you may not know this, but we knew many of your families, relatives, Aunties and Uncles through the years living in Humboldt. Consider it an old-school kind of thing. Elders and community are like that.
We also know it wasn’t easy nor was it always this way. These efforts took a long time to come about. A very hard long time.
“We Welcome You,” below, is from the Yurok Tribe’s website. It explains more of the history and culture of the Yurok people.
Culturally, our people are known as great fishermen, eelers, basket weavers, canoe makers, storytellers, singers, dancers, healers and strong medicine people.
Before we were given the name “Yurok” (the name means “downriver people” in the neighboring Karuk
language) we referred to ourselves and others in our
area using our Indian language. When we refer to
ourselves we say Oohl, meaning Indian people.
Our traditional family homes and sweathouses are made from fallen keehl (redwood trees) which are then cut into redwood boards. Before contact, it was common for every village to have several family homes and sweathouses. Today, only a small number of villages with traditional family homes and sweathouses remain intact. Our traditional stories teach us that the redwood trees are sacred living beings. Although we use them in our homes and canoes, we also respect redwood trees because they stand as guardians over our sacred places.
The yoch (canoe) makers are recognized for their intuitive craftsmanship. The primary function of the canoes was to get people up and down the river and for ocean travel. The canoe is also very important to the White Deerskin Dance, a ceremony recently rejuvenated. The canoes are used to transport dancers and ceremonial people.
The traditional money used by Yurok people is terk-term (dentalia shell), which is a shell harvested from the ocean. The dentalia used on necklaces are most often used in traditional ceremonies, such as the u pyue-wes (White Deerskin Dance),
woo-neek-we-ley-goo (Jump Dance) and mey-lee
(Brush Dance). It was standard years ago to use dentalia
to settle debts, pay dowry, and purchase large or small items
needed by individuals or families.
Contact and Change
The Yurok did not experience non-Indian exploration until much later than other tribal groups in California and the United States. By 1849 settlers were quickly moving into Northern California because of the discovery of gold at Gold Bluffs and Orleans. The Yurok and settlers traded goods and the Yurok assisted with transporting items via dugout canoe. However, this relationship quickly changed as more settlers moved into the area and demonstrated hostility toward Indian people.
The gold mining expeditions resulted in the destruction of villages, loss of life and a culture severely fragmented. By the end of the gold rush era at least 75% of the Yurok people died due to massacres and disease, while other
tribes in California saw a 95% loss of life.
The Federal Government established the Yurok Reservation in 1855 and immediately Yurok people were confined to the area. The Reservation was considerably smaller than the Yurok original ancestral territory. This presented a hardship for Yurok families who traditionally lived in villages along the Klamath River and northern Pacific coastline.
Reservations, Relocation and Education
When Fort Terwer was established many Yurok families were relocated and forced to learn farming and the English language. Several Yurok people were relocated to the newly established Reservation in Smith River that same year. Once the Hoopa Valley Reservation was established many Yurok people were sent to live there, as were the Mad River, Eel River and Tolowa Indians.
In the years following the opening of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, several squatters on the Yurok Reservation continued to farm and fish in the Klamath River. The government’s response was to evict squatters and use military force. At the time, logging practices were
unregulated and resulted in the contamination of the Klamath
River, depletion of the salmon population, and destruction of
Yurok village sites and sacred areas.
Western education was imposed on Yurok children beginning in the late 1850s at Fort Terwer. Yurok children, sent to live at the Hoopa Valley Reservation, continued to be taught by missionaries.
The goal of the missionary style of teaching was to eliminate the continued use of cultural and religious teachings that Indian children’s families taught. Children were abused by missionaries for using the Yurok language and observing cultural and ceremonial traditions.
In the late 1800s children were removed from the Reservation to Chemawa in Oregon and Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. Today, many elders look back on this period in time as a horrifying experience because they lost their connection to their families, and their culture. Many were not able to learn the Yurok language and did not participate in ceremonies for fear of violence being brought against them by non-Indians.
Some elders went to great lengths to escape from the schools, traveling hundreds of miles to return home to their families. They lived with the constant fear of being caught and returned to the school. Families often hid their children when they saw government officials. Over time the use of boarding schools declined and day schools were established on the Yurok Reservation.
Elders recall getting up early in the morning, traveling by canoe to the nearest day school and returning home late at night. The fact that they were at day schools did not eliminate the constant pressure to forget their language and culture.
Families disguised the practice of teaching traditional ways, while others succumbed to the western philosophy of education and left their traditional ways behind.
Eventually, Indian children were granted permission to enroll in public schools. Although they were granted access many faced harsh prejudice and stereotypes. These hardships plagued Indian students for generations and are major factors in the decline of the Yurok language and traditional ways.
Similar to other tribal groups in California, Yurok people overcame the destruction of their villages, and assimilation attempts by non-Indians. Many Yurok people went to extreme measures to hold on to their traditional ways. When government policy forbade the use of traditional languages and outlawed the practice of traditional ceremonies, Yurok people continued. Some dances stopped while others were revitalized. Most importantly, the knowledge and beliefs continued and eventually reappeared and have remained constant.
The late 1970s and 80s were a time when the revitalization effort
soared in the local area. The Jump Dance returned to Pek-won in 1984, a War Dance demonstration was held in the late 1980s, and communities came together to support the revitalization of Brush Dances along the river and the coast. In the year 2000, the White Deerskin Dance was held again at the village of Weych-pues.
For several generations there were times of darkness – no cultural traditions being passed on and the language slowly fading away. With so few Yurok families able to hold onto traditional ways, it appeared as though the attempts to eliminate the cultural traditions would be successful.
With the help of many elders (who have since passed on), a glimpse of light began to emerge. Young people who were eager to learn Yurok traditions did so and for the past twenty years Yurok traditional ceremonies have continued.
The use of the Yurok language dramatically decreased when non-Indians settled in the Yurok territory. By the early 1900s the Yurok language was near extinction. It took less than 40 years for the language to reach that level. It took another 70 years for the Yurok language to recover.
When the language revitalization effort began, the use of old records helped new language learners. However, it was through hearing fluent
speakers that many young learners fluency level
When the Yurok Tribe began to operate as a formal tribal government, a language program was created.
In 1996 the Yurok Tribe received assistance from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA). With the development of a Long Range Restoration Plan a survey was completed and the results showed that there were only 20 fluent speakers and 12 semi-fluent speakers of the Yurok language.
After a decade of language restoration activities, the Tribe most recently documented that there are now only 11 fluent Yurok speakers, but now have 37 advanced speakers, 60 intermediate speakers and approximately 311 basic speakers.
The Yurok Tribe continues to look to new approaches like the use of digital technology, Internet sites, short stories, and supplemental curriculum. The Tribe continues to increase the number of language classes taught on and off the Reservation, at local schools for young learners and at community classes.
Today, the Yurok Tribe is currently the largest Tribe in California, with more than 5,000 enrolled members.
The Tribe provides numerous services to the local community and membership with its more than 200 employees. The Tribe’s major initiatives include: the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, dam removal, natural resources protection, sustainable economic development enterprises and land acquisition.”
(And, we might add, a unique project to reintroduce the critically endangered California condor.)
“We invite all people sharing this planet with us to join in: our deep appreciation and respect for the natural world, acceptance of our role as responsible stewards keeping balance in the world, and realization of the power that every individual has within them to make positive change for all people, wildlife, and the world as a whole.”
* * * * * * * *
The Yurok people have worked tenaciously to reclaim their culture, language, young people, and rightful place in the sun.
Our appreciation goes out to Josh, Jeremiah, Lena-Belle, Sammy, James, Ke-yoh, Eric, Misty, Page, Mari, Jasmine, and Madison for carrying the lit torch and family fishing net further, and to the Elders for teaching them on their way.
“We Welcome You: History and Culture” has been abridged. The full article can be found here
(Images by the Humboldt Sentinel)