The Supreme Being of Yurok mythology is called Card; he created all things, and gave them their language, and now lives in the mountains. Anyone who will for the space of ten or fifteen days eat only acorn soup and think only of him will have good fortune and get rich, and when he goes out hunting will find a white deer—the highest earthly object of desire to a Yurok. (Powers 1877 :64)
"It would be virtually impossible to list every feature of the natural environment which was regarded as a spiritual entity according to aboriginal belief. All of nature was thought to have been shaped through incidents that occurred in the period before humans existed, and in their modern form not only the plants and animals but even the trails were believed to have "feelings" and power to influence human life...all over the region, walking trails were regarded as conscious beings, and in traveling the Indian had to observe certain rules in order to avoid insulting them. It was considered wrong, for example, to step out of a trail and in again without making some gesture of respect, and indeed the traveler had to observe many such customs. There were certain places where it was expected that a person would stop and rest while using a trail, whether he was tired or not, and there the Indian was often supposed to speak a prayer. There were other places where the traveler was expected to make a certain offering. In some instances, this meant dropping a twig or branch where trails crossed one another, while in others the Indian was supposed to shoot an arrow into certain sacred trees so as to assure good luck.
The twig dropping is best described by Powers, who writes,
They have a curious custom of dropping twigs and boughs at the junction of trails, which sometimes accumulate in heaps several feet high, like the nests of woodrats. Every Indian who passes deposits a twig on the pile, but without observing any method that a white man can discover. No one will explain the custom, though it is probably observed, like so many other things, merely "for luck." (Powers, 1877 :58)
The annotated maps in Waterman (1920) identify a number of special locations that were known as places where a Yurok person could pray or ask for help, and the following examples give an indication of their character:
1. A certain place on Bald Hills where there is an echo. One goes there to shout for help and the response tells whether or not the spirit will help (1920:197).
2. A rock offshore from Wilson Creek (False Klamath Rock). One of the wo'gey came to live in this rock, and he invites people to cry and ask for money while looking at the place (1920:230).
3. A place on the coast near the village of Omen. People would look around in the saltwater here for rocks to make arrowheads. After shaping them, they would "cook" the points by speaking a formula over them, after which they would be strong enough to shoot right through an elk (1920:233).
4. A submerged rock in the Klamath River (Posir Rock), just upstream from Ah Pah Creek. This rock was a "charm" for snaring deer. The hunter would dive underwater to touch it, and then he rubbed his hands upon the snares, which guaranteed a catch (1920:238).
5. A large rock in the Klamath River below Pekwan. Pelintsiek ("Great Dentalium") used to live in the water here. In passing the rock by canoe, one stops alongside it in midstream, there clapping the hands and speaking a short prayer for luck (1920: 243).
6. A certain rock formation near the village of Merip. Arrowheads were placed in a cleft in the rock, and there they became "rusted" or covered with a poison that made them certain to kill (1920:250).
7. A point of rocks on Trinidad Head. The Yurok name for this rock formation is translated "He Sits Forever." A man went there to cry for luck and ask for money. Then he saw dentalium shells in the water, numerous as sardines. He sat there looking and refusing to leave until he gradually turned to stone (1920:270).
Waterman felt that the Yurok had an unusually large number of named places within their territory, by comparison with other North American Indians, and he said that his monograph contained only about one half the places that might have been indicated if there were adequate time or space to include them clearly on the maps (1920:195). This very intensive view of the surrounding landscape was something which also impressed Powers, who commented on the care with which this information was transmitted from one generation to the next.
Of all the spiritual beings recognized by the Yuroks, none was more important than the wo'gey , for it was they who had originated nearly every form of medicine making and whose continued help the Indians needed if public and private rituals were to be effective...When Indians came, the wo'gey took refuge in trees, rocks, springs, and other places. Because humans built homes along the river, many of the spirit-persons went into the upper ridges to live, and this is why Indians traditionally go to the high country to make medicine...It was mainly the aristocratic Indians who trained in the sweat-house and made medicine in the high country. These were often intellectuals who traveled widely to gain knowledge of other Indian peoples and took pride in speaking languages other than their own.
This identification with the sacred landscape is revealed in a remark made by Florence Schaughnessy (Yurok) in describing the beauty of the high country.
You come across a place you've never seen before, and it has awesome beauty. Everything above you, below you, and around you is so pure—that is the beauty we call merwerksergerh , and the pure person is also merwerksergerh . (Matthiessen 1979:62)
If a person wants to tell me something, let him come up into the hills in the evening and stay all night. Let him take tobacco with him, and angelica root, only those two. And he must be careful of himself before he does that: he must get sweathouse wood, and drink no water, and go with no women. Then, I shall answer him if he calls my name .
Instructions from a wo'gey on how to pray in the high country ( Kroeber 1976:291)
Instructions from a wo'gey on how to pray in the high country ( Kroeber 1976:291)
As noted previously, it was believed that the wo'gey went to live in the hills when Indians arrived, for the humans built their villages at lower elevations close to the rivers. A person had to make special preparations for praying in the high country...When a person finally made this lonely journey and built a campfire up on the ridge, he or she would have to stay up all night, because it was considered dangerous to sleep up there. There was a wind, some said, which could suck away the body of a person who fell asleep, leaving only the skeleton (Matthiessen 1979:61).
Beliefs concerning the high country are splendidly illustrated in a story told by Robert Spott, who was Kroeber's main source for information about Yurok spiritual practices (Spott and Kroeber 1942:167-169). The narrative begins with a lengthy description of Sregon Jim, a man who seems to have personified Yurok ideals of wealth and fierce manliness in the eyes of Sport.
These were the things that made Sregon Jim a man of substance, by Yurok standards. However, this account really concerns an ancestor of his, probably his great-grandfather. He was reputed to have had ten wives, and through praying in the high country he not only received wealth for himself but also a miraculous power through which his descendants could obtain money for generations to come.
This patriarch used to train on a sacred mountain about one and a half day's hike northward from Sregon. On the peak of this mountain there was a stone enclosure with this highly unusual property: if a person sat inside the enclosure he would hear water dripping, as if he were inside a cave. The water would drip and strike the ground with a ringing sound, and yet it was hard to tell exactlyherbs. Sealing the crevice, they also covered the rock with dead leaves, and spread leaves around to hide their footprints as well.
where the ringing came from as drops struck the ground. The man had been coming here for many summers until finally the following incident occurred:
Then, the last time, as he was sitting there, he heard the water drip and ring twice, seemingly in front of himself. He wiped his tears away—because they mostly cry on such an occasion, cleared off the grass, and saw a shiny gray rock. He began to rub this, and it slid to the side like a cover. Underneath it was a hole about the size of a can, with blue or green water in it. He felt around in the water with two fingers and there was something very slippery, like a lamprey eel but smaller. . . . Finally, he got hold of it, took it out, and laid it in some manzanita-limb shavings . . . which he had in a keyem basket. Then he saw that the thing was of stone and shaped like a deer, with horns. (Spott and Kroeber 1942:168)
Later, when they were by themselves, the young man and his grandfather went together up to the oak tree. After examining the thing carefully, they then took it to a certain rock formation, about three-fourths of a mile back from the river. They placed it in a crevice along with angelica root, shredded manzanita, and other
They cried all the while, and did not tell the other men what had happened for many days afterward. According to Spott, this was how Sregon Jim's ancestor had assured the family wealth. The thing that he had found was called a tsemmin , and it had many lucky properties. Not only would it tend to attract valuable property ("as if it came of itself"), but it also brought deer close by where they lived, and because of this tsemmin the doctors in the family were summoned often and handsomely paid for their services.
Actual use of the tsemmin was described as follows:
Sometimes he would go to where it was and smoke. He would strike his tobacco pouch, wish for luck, fill his pipe, and blow the crumbs of tobacco out of his palm toward the tsemmin . . . . All this he did before he was married. After he was married he did not go near it anymore, except sometimes when he lost his luck in hunting; then he would stand in front of the rock where the tsemmin was hidden and would clap his hands. This hand-clapping is called we-terkterpterwerk . This was something a woman may not do, except a doctor who is seeking power. When he had done this his hunting luck always returned. It was this same young man who later had ten wives. (Spott and Kroeber 1942:169)
...the Indian went up to the mountains in order to shout and cry for help, and the goal in both instances was to establish a permanent connection with the wo'gey world. For the Sregon man, this meant bringing back the tsemmin and placing it in a rock close to his village...
The high country has a special importance in this relationship, and during the late 1970s an elderly Yurok woman named Ella Norris described its significance in these words:
Red Mountain? Doctor Rock? That's our Holy Land. Everything we done, we went there, for prayer. They'd go there for different things. If you wanted to be a good stick player, or a gambler, [or whatever]. Different places, too. Not just right on Doctor Rock. Doctor Rock is just a place for Indians, for a woman or man that wants to be a doctor. Just like a white man doctor [there are different kinds of doctor]. Some of them is for surgery, [and] some of them is for something else. Well that's the same thing. They go there [to Doctor Rock], and they get their degree. Not only for Indian doctor. Some of them got a special prayer for boils, or for choke, and some of them used to get poisoned. Their stomache would swell up. They got a special song for that. Or a prayer. Or your eyes get sore. Or just a million things. They learn that up there. (interview at Crescent City, November 13, 1979)
...tsekteya or tsekwel in Yurok (Kroeber 1976:381)...known in English as "stone seats" or "stone chairs." They are semicircular walls built of unmortared stones, piled about three or four feet high. These were made as places to cry and shout for help, especially for female Indian doctors seeking to obtain their power-enabling vision. There are photographs of a similar structure in Kroeber and Gifford (1949:143)."
Keeling, Richard. Cry for Luck: Sacred Song and Speech Among the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok Indians of Northwestern California. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8g5008k8/