How Yurok and Karuk Traditions Sustain Delicate Balance of North Coast Species

The Yurok people care for all of their family members, and their kin — including condors and salmon — reciprocate the care.
A condor’s view of the Klamath River | Still from Tending Nature

The founding documents of the Yurok Tribe, the basic laws that guide the decisions and actions of tribal leaders and citizens, are much older than the Tribe’s 1993 constitution. The people’s true legal and moral bedrock consists of their stories told and their ceremonies conducted starting in the remote past; stories and ceremonies so old their ages can’t be accurately measured; stories and ceremonies that have animated Yurok lives since time immemorial.

These stories, ceremonies, and certain associated works of art and music continue today to express and shape Yurok people’s relationships and responsibilities to their ancestral territory — including the Bald Hills, adjacent redwood forests, the Klamath River, and the Pacific Ocean — and Yurok people’s relationships and responsibilities to other people in and around the Klamath region. Those relationships and responsibilities are too complex to be adequately encapsulated in a constitution or a collection of written laws.

“Our connection with this land, with this river, is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to explain,” says Yurok tribal heritage preservation officer Rosie Clayburn.

Yurok relationships with other people and with land, water, animals, and plants are difficult to articulate in straightforward, linear English sentences because those relationships form an extremely complex, dense network of moral obligations. People care for all of their family members, and their kin — including condors and salmon — reciprocate the care.

Tribal condor biologist Tiana Williams describes Yurok people’s connection to their ancestral territory as multidimensional. “It’s a web more than a line,” says Williams. “Returning condor to Yurok ancestral territory is really bringing a member of our community, our family, home.”wh

A clip from “Tending Nature” episode “Restoring The River with the Yurok, Hupa and Karuk” shows a major Trinity River restoration project to foster a healthier environment for salmon runs.

“We feel like the salmon is related to us, we feel like the condor is related to us… It’s our place, culturally and ceremonially, to protect them,” Clayburn says about the deep connections with every species within Yurok homelands.

Tribal elder Bob McConnell provides an example of how Yurok people honor their obligations to others. “We had certain rules that we lived by and made sure that when we got fish here, that those fish were allowed to pass upriver largely unchecked until we received word that folks upriver were catching fish.”

Thus, Yurok people ensure that their neighbors up the Klamath River, including Karuk people, can sustain themselves. Karuk ceremonial leader Ron Reed explains the ceremonial sequence: “First spring salmon is spotted down at the mouth of the river. The medicine man and his helper spot the first salmon and then they catch that first salmon, ritually eat it, and then there’s a jump dance 10 days afterwards,” Reed says. “The second salmon ceremony is held on a new moon in July up by Happy Camp. At that point, people all the way out to the ocean can fish.”

The ceremonial sequence allows the fish to reach the headwaters and spawn to sustain a healthy population. The motivations downriver fish harvesters have to delay their catch are not necessarily purely altruistic or selfless. “If the fish are unhealthy, we’re unhealthy,” says dip-net fisherman Charley Reed (Karuk/Yurok/Hupa). By sustaining the well-being of their upriver neighbors and providing for their nourishment, Yurok people ensure that those neighbors will be in a position to maintain good salmon habitat for the benefit of all who live along the river, up and down its entire watershed.

Similarly, Yuroks sustain and nurture animals such as the condor, and condors return the favor. The condor has been absent from Yurok lands for many years, but the bird is central to tribal ceremonial culture, and people have continued to maintain condor habitat in the animal’s absence so that its reintroduction is viable.c

A clip from “Tending Nature” episode “Restoring The River with the Yurok, Hupa and Karuk” discusses the spiritual and ecological significance of the condor to the tribes in the North Coast.

When Yurok people burn their lands according to the rules embedded in their songs, stories, and ceremonies, they manipulate the severity, frequency, timing, and extent of their fires to create excellent condor habitat. In old-growth redwood forests, condors nest in tree cavities hollowed out by flames, and Yurok fires keep coastal prairie lands open and free of invading trees and shrubs. Condors forage within those open prairies and their sharp, strong bills slice into the tough, thick hides of large carcasses, making food available to a host of other animals that would otherwise find it difficult to consume the meat. In turn, those animals can become prey or otherwise provide services, like dispersing seeds of important plants, for larger animals such as bears and people — thus closing loops inside an intricately interlaced food web.

Salmon are also interlinked into complex food webs. As Yurok biologist Keith Parker explains, salmon bring marine-derived nutrients into the Klamath River. Then, many different species drag salmon carcasses into the forest to feed on them, making the nutrients available to redwood trees and other plants. In turn, the forest filters water into the river, ensuring clean, healthy habitat for salmon. Also, fallen trees and logjams provide good hiding and spawning habitat for the fish.

In addition to large-scale river restoration projects accomplished with heavy equipment, Yurok people conduct cultural burns that help to maintain and improve the quantity and quality of the water that these upslope forests yield to the rivers.

A clip from “Tending Nature” episode “Restoring The River with the Yurok, Hupa and Karuk” explores the surprising connection between the health of salmon and the health of redwood forests.

The rules and codes enfolded within Yurok and other tribal ceremonies and stories are not easily available to non-tribal members. They are not available to teach others how to do what Yurok people do. Embedded in the specific language of stories or in the particulars of the performance of ceremonies may be an emphasis on important places or on precise timing of stewardship activities that only people who repeatedly hear the stories or engage in the ceremonies can fully understand. However, governance documents like the 1993 Yurok constitution help to translate indigenous ceremony and story into a form that is partially accessible to outsiders. The constitution is also a response to Yurok history, genocide, and conflicts with settlers and the United States government. As the constitution states:

Throughout the first 140 years of our tribes’ dealings with the United States, we never adopted a written form of government. We had not needed a formal structure and were reluctant to change. The United States had decimated the Yurok population, land base, and natural resources and our people were deeply distrustful of the federal government. Yet we, the Yurok people, know that this is the time to exercise our inherent tribal sovereignty and formally organize under this Constitution. We do this to provide for the administration and governance of the modern Yurok Tribe that has emerged, strong and proud, from the tragedies and wrongs of the years since the arrival of the non-Indians into our land. Our sacred and vibrant traditions have survived and are now growing stronger and richer each year.

The Yurok Tribe is the largest Indian tribe in California, and, while much land has been lost, the spirit of the Creator and our inherent tribal sovereignty still thrives in the hearts and minds of our people as well as in the strong currents, deep canyons, thick forests, and high mountains of our ancestral lands.

The constitution goes on to lay out political, social, and ecological goals and purposes of the Tribe, including the goal to “Restore, enhance, and manage the tribal fishery, tribal water rights, tribal forests, and all other natural resources.”

The Tribe’s recent testimony before the United States Congress echoes and elaborates its constitution’s historical context for the restoration of Yurok lands and for the Tribe’s goals for a positive future in Yurok country.

Our social and ecological balance, thousands and thousands of years old, was shattered by contact with non-Indians in the mid-1800s. In 1851, California’s first Governor promised “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” In finally apologizing on behalf of California, Governor Newsom, in 2019 called this what it was – “genocide.” For us, it is not history. We lost more than 75% of our people through unprovoked massacres and diseases. …

In a matter of 130 years, the Yurok people lost over 1.49 million acres of land. …

Against all odds, we have resisted, survived and maintained our culture and our people. Today, we are the largest California Tribe with over 6,400 tribal members. In part because we were never relocated and in part because we believe in our cultural and religious traditions. Indeed, many tribal members still live a traditional subsistence-based way of life. Every year we hold tribal ceremonies, dancing for the health of babies and to balance the world. …

While much has been lost, the spirit of the Creator and our inherent tribal sovereignty still thrive in the hearts and minds of our people as well as in the strong currents, deep canyons, thick forests, and high mountains of our ancestral lands. The Yurok Tribe has emerged, strong and proud from the tragedies and wrongs of the years since the arrival of non-Indians into our land. Our sacred and vibrant traditions have survived and are now growing grander and richer each year.

Our future lies in sustainable economic development based on our rich natural resources, cultural traditions, and preservation of our way of life. … to exercise our inherent tribal sovereignty to protect the rich natural and cultural bounty of our area for not just Yurok people but for all American citizens and humanity.

The congressional testimony closes with a description of some of the land the Tribe is asking to be restored to its jurisdiction.

That’s an awesome vision. It’s a condor’s view, high above the coastal prairies, a dramatic scene of grasslands, oak woodlands, redwood forests, ocean, and salmon-filled river, all welded together by Yurok fire, ceremony, husbandry, and restoration into a strong, reticulated web of land and water, teeming with healthful and abundant life.