Northwest California is a land of rugged topography and heavy forests, with a rocky coast and no coastal plain. It is notable for its extremes in geographical and biotic variation and represents one of the most optimal environments for any human society living directly off the land. The climate is highly seasonal: heavy rains (in some places exceeding 100 inches) occur from November through May while the months from June through October are relatively dry.
The societies that occupied this relatively small geographical region centered on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and the Pacific Ocean. The rivers yielded prodigious amounts of salmon and other species (e.g., candlefish and sea lamprey), while coastal-marine resources were obtainable along the long, sandy beaches and rocky headlands as well as offshore. Inland, abundant supplies of acorns, along with a wide variety of other plant and animal species, were readily available. Most settlements were along rivers, streams, bays, and ocean; rarely were settlements placed elsewhere. Houses, generally constructed of thick redwood boards and placed partially into the earth, were occupied year round, often for several generations.
Of the seven societies that occupied this region (the Tolowa, Yurok, Wiyot, Karok, Hupa, Chilula, and Whilkut) three nations, the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok, came to share a common civilization and a ceremonial life which stood clearly apart from that of the surrounding Indian peoples, although some features were shared by neighboring nations including the Tolowa, Chilula, and Wiyot. What is truly remarkable about the sharing between the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok is that the three nations had widely different roots in remote times. This is seen in their different linguistic affiliations: the Karok are related (linguistically) to other California nations in that they speak a language of the Hokan family (believed to be the oldest language family in California); the Hupa are Athapaskan speakers, part of a migration from the northwestern part of the continent to Oregon and California, perhaps some 1500 to 2000 years ago; and the Yurok seem to be distant lingustic relatives of the Algonkian speakers, a small western offshoot of the peoples who came to occupy nearly all of northeastern North America.
Before the 1850s, the people of northwestern California enjoyed a fantastic wealth of natural resources: salmon and acorns were plentiful and most of the people had considerable time for leisure and reflection. The people, especially the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok, placed much importance on symbols of wealth, including dentalium shells, which was the main type of "money." Men and women often had their forearms tattooed so as to measure the length of strings of detalium beads, the strings serving as a standard by which the value of almost anything (from houses to a person's life, from food to rights to a curing formula) could be measured. Other classes of wealth objects included bright scarlet woodpecker scalps, fine deerskins (especially the rare albino pelts), large (sometime up to two or more feet long) obsidian blades.
There was a minimal amount of centralized authority among the Northwest nations, with village affairs settled in meetings held by a few of the richest males. Such persons among the Yurok were called pergerk, which might be translated as "real man" or "real person," and are usually referred to in the anthropological literature as "big men." It was believed that a pergerk, and other Northwest bigmen, acquired their wealth largely from the pursuit and acquisition of a type of spiritual power. And in general, only those persons of arisocratic birth had the power and knowledge of how to obtain this power.
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Page last updated: 23 August 1999