It is the season of the Native. We have just completed our World Renewal ceremonies, Columbus Day, Halloween (please don’t dress as a “brave” or Pocahottie), November is Native American Heritage month. Oh boy this is our time of the year.
In the spirit of Native American Heritage month I would like to let people know a little about the Native culture I come from.
The Tribes of northwest California were untouched by contact with Western society until the discovery of gold in 1849. The quest for gold did not last long, though, and this is one of the few areas that remain culturally intact, and for the most part was separated from the direct influence of America until the early 1900’s. These Tribes have a connection to their homelands, languages and ceremonies to a degree that, unfortunately, is not typical for many Native peoples. One of the things that has always amazed is the experience of my Great Uncle, Leonard Super. He was born at the turn of the 20th century in a time where in the homeland of the Karuk people there were no roads, electricity, phones or very many white people. By the time he died in 1992 he had traveled half way around the world to fight in World War II, bought cars-learned to work on their motors and drove all over the western US, flew on airplanes, went to see the SF Giants, rode in a stretch limo, watched the space shuttle go up, typed on a laptop computer and saw a man made spacecraft circle Mars. Try explaining a CD to someone who grew up with music and sound coming from wax cylinders and metal disks.
One distinctive cultural norm that all these tribes share is the emphasis of the role an individual played within the health of the village. Our Tribes did not live in large clusters of people like some other Nations, but rather were small communities of families that inhabited the best living spots along the rivers. As such, each village was independent and autonomous. This meant that the individuals within that community had to meet all the survival needs of the people.
The Karuk, Hupa, Tolowa, Wiyot and Yurok Tribes remain on their traditional homelands to this day. While sharing a similar cultural framework, each of these Tribes has a wholly distinct Tribal language. It has been said that our languages are so diverse it would be like trying to have people that speak Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili trying to hold a conversation. Language retention and revitalization is a major effort of the Native communities in our region.
Our Tribes up this way, like many Tribes, have a historic and a modern geography where they lived. These are descriptions of historic Tribal territories. The Little River is the border between the homelands of the Wiyot and Yurok peoples. The Tolowa are from the extreme northern coast, from the southwestern corner of Oregon to approximately fifteen miles south of Crescent City at Wilson Creek. The Yurok come from the coast, from this point south to just below Trinidad Bay, and up the Klamath River, extending about 45 miles to just before Bluff Creek, where Karuk Territory begins. Yurok country is also a short distance south along the Trinity. The Wiyot are south along the coast from Trinidad past Eureka to Ferndale, encompassing Arcata and Humboldt Bays, the lower Mad River, and the lower Eel River. The Karuk lands are along the Klamath above Yurok territory further upriver to beyond Happy Camp, and along the Salmon River. The Hupa are from the Trinity River just before the junction with the Klamath, especially through the north-south section called Hoopa Valley and south to Grouse Creek. The Tsnugwe people come from the Trinity River area from Willow Creek through the Burnt Ranch area. The Chilula and Whilkut were smaller tribes that inhabited warm interior valleys close to Redwood Creek and the Mad River watershed.
The natural environment, the rivers, mountains and oceans forge the cultural backbone of our people. Living on the abundance of foods, such as acorns, salmon, deer meat and berries life here was remarkably untouched by contact with western society until the discovery of gold in 1849. Not finding their glittering prize easily accessible a majority of the miners left our Tribal territories and western society did not become a permanent neighbor until the early part of the 20th century. Even today we live in a remote isolated area. My family allotment still has no electricity, indoor plumbing or other modern conveniences/services. But we are fortunate to be able to hold our ceremonies, walk the same trails and pray in the same sacred sites that our ancestors did. Through the boarding schools, the reservation system, BIA relocation program many Tribal people have lost that connection to their sacred geography.
Andre Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.