Music Of The Yurok Indians

Love, Luck, Animals, & Magic

New World Records NW 297

Music of the Yurok and Tolowa Indians
by Charlotte Heth

In aboriginal times the coastal Indians of northern California shared a tremendous wealth of food, clothing, and material goods. From Trinidad, California, to the Oregon border the forests almost touch the Pacific Ocean, which gave the people the bounty of both the woodlands and the sea.

The Tolowa and the Yurok, along with their neighbors the Hupa and Karok, are the southernmost representatives of the elaborate Northwest Coast Indian culture area. Staple foods were acorns, fish (especially salmon), and seaweed, supplemented by game animals, sea lions, and whales. Shell money and dance regalia demonstrated the wealth and status of the owner.

Concepts of wealth and status among the Yurok are illustrated in these excerpts from
The Inland Whale, edited by Theodora Kroeber (see Bibliography):
Nenem and her proud and aristocratic family were known and respected all up and down the river. No Jumping Dance took place in Nenem's time without the wolfskin headbands and the civet aprons from Pekwoi [the name of her family's house]; no Deerskin Dance was complete without the priceless pure white deerskin of Pekwoi.
Nenem herself had a tender rhythmic sort of beauty. Her heavy hair, parted in the middle and held with minkskin ties, lay straight and shining over her shoulders and breasts. Ear disks of polished abalone shell framed a gentle face, high-bred in its modeling, with long eyes and crescent-moon eyebrows and a gracious mouth. She was small and she moved with a light proud step, so smoothly that the many-stranded shell beads around her neck and the hundreds of strings of seeds in her apron and the heavy polished abalone and obsidian pendants which hung from her buckskin skirt made only a soft shu-shu shu-shu accompaniment to her walk. [The costume described is worn during the dances on this album, tracks 13, 14, 19, and 20.]

Further on in the story, when Nenem gets older, her bastard son ToÃn acquires the power to accumulate wealth and status from a supernatural meeting with Ninawa, the whale.

ToÃn was scarcely full grown when his bulging boxes could outfit a Deerskin Dance upriver and a Jumping Dance down-river at the same time. Such an accumulation of treasure by one so young had not happened before on the river and perhaps has not happened since. And it was the more remarkable, since the power and wealth and prestige of Pekwoi were denied him. Ninawa [the inland whale] had supplied, in her own way [by her power], more even than Pekwoi withheld.

Ninawa's power sent his arrows farther and straighter, but the tireless hunter was ToÃn. From hummingbird to blackbird to woodpecker to eagle to condor; from weasel to mink to civet cat to wolf to deer--ToÃn snared and netted and trapped and decoyed and hunted. He cleaned and tanned and glued and cut and sewed as great-grandfather and his mother had taught him to do.

It was Ninawa's power that spread the word of this hunter who might sell or trade his surplus. She started the flow of those with money for purchasing and those with sea lion tusks and rare obsidian and flint, who sought him out. But the buyers and traders came again and again because they were pleased with him and with what he offered. Trading and selling far upriver and down river to the sea, ToÃn gradually filled a large box with the precious long strings of dentalium shell money. . . .

When Nenem's father died, the younger men of Pekwoi, Nenem's brother and his two sons, came with all of the principal men of Kotep [the town]. . . . The brother was their spokesman; in their name and his
own, he invited ToÃn to live in Pekwoi and to be the head of the house [the First Man of the village].

The Tolowa and Yurok had little contact with non-Indians until the 1850's, when miners and settlers came in great numbers to Crescent City and Humboldt Bay. These white people found the Indians living in plank houses on the coast or inland along the rivers.The Tolowa, including the Chetco, lived on Crescent Bay, Lake Earl, and the Smith River in northwestern California, and on the Chetco River in southwestern Oregon" (Murdock; see Bibliography). The Yurok territory stretched from Trinidad, California, on the coast northeast to the junction of the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

The Tolowa had no political entity greater than the village, but inhabitants of adjacent areas shared linguistic and cultural traits (Drucker; see Bibliography). The political history after white contact is one of massacres and retaliations resulting in an estimated population of 121 Tolowas in 1910 (Curtis; see Bibliography).

One young Tolowa man who was tracing his family tree talked to the oldest members of his tribe and put together the following story about their survival (interview with Loren Bommelyn, April 12, 1976, in Los Angeles):
And when they slaughtered at Yontocket, Etchulet, and Jordan Creek they didn't leave
many of us. And the only ones of us that survived are the ones that ran way back into the mountains and stayed there for a year until they got over their frenzy and then mellowed out a bit. . . . Then we moved back into the flat lands after it calmed down a bit. . . . There was an old man named "Drádili," and he was my great-great-grandfather, and he had a brother named "Chetco Tom" and another brother named "Captain Tom" and a sister named "Siyotesna." And Drádili had eight wives and from these eight wives he had two children and this started the nucleus of our tribe over.
And then up further, Chetco Tom had nine children and then they multiplied out. And they intermingled with the Coos Indians, and we intermingled with the Yurok and the Karok and the Grant's Pass people. . . . There were only six Crescent City people left out of about four hundred, and there were only about fifteen up-river people, which I'm a part of, out of maybe a thousand. The "mouth" people were the biggest left, down at the mouth, "Haolunkwit." And so that's how our people kind of started over again. . . . Now there's about 450 of us, I guess, that are Tolowa, and yet we're still part Yurok and Tolowa and Karok and Siletz and Tututni. But we have this culture and that's the same.

The Yurok, according to A. L. Kroeber, were also organized into villages, which were not political units but aggregates of individuals sharing cultural affinities. Historically the Yurok fared a little better than the Tolowa, but population figures show a rapid decline after white settlement, although they recovered by 1970: in 1870 the estimated population of the Yurok was 2,700, in 1910 688, and in 1970 3,000 (Curtis; Murdock).

CHARLOTTE HETH, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, received her Ph.D. from UCLA. Dr. Heth contributes articles to various journals throughout the country, and produced New World Records NW 246: Songs of Earth, Water, Fire, and Sky.

Play song


Performed by


Native Words



Love Song FRANK A. DOUGLAS Love songs are affective songs (see also tracks 5 and 9) performed to make someone fall in love with or come back to the singer. They are considered "lucky" songs. Frank Douglas translated this one.

Douglas sings the song through five times, beginning very loud on a high pitch and decreasing his volume as the melody descends the scale. His voice has remarkable flexibility and power for an eighty-four-year-old.
Come crossways, you look.
Come a-tearing crossways.
Glad to get back to his sweetheart.
Grizzly Bear War Song FRANK A. DOUGLAS The Yurok had a "war dance known as the wert keremer, the songs of which are of a lively if not stirring character" (Kroeber, 1925). "Grizzly Bear War Song" certainly is "lively." Douglas stamps out a basic pulse that contrasts with the strong beats in the melody. Disjunct intervals, a percussive delivery, and the variety excite the listener. The final war cry climaxes the piece. (A translation could not be obtained for this song.)
Rabbit Song FRANK A. DOUGLAS This animal song talks about the appearance of rabbit droppings. Douglas sings it six times. The phrase starts high, descends in the middle, and jumps upward a fourth to finish, an unusual contour in American Indian music.

Note: As in many Yurok animal songs, the actual words--slightly off-color--were not meant to be understood by a non-Yurok audience; therefore, a literal translation is not provided.
Gambling Song FRANK A. DOUGLAS Indian gambling games span the continent. Although they are not the same from area to area, a common element in many is the hiding of a stick, a bone, or a rock. Often such objects are distinctively marked. The Yurok "card" game involves hiding a marked stick in a bundle of plain sticks. The "lucky" gambling songs are designed to give the singers team a psychological advantage (see also tracks 15 and 18).

Douglas accompanies himself on a square double-headed frame drum. The range is wide, an eleventh. The melodic contour is terraced descending throughout each of the five strophes. In contrast to the other songs Douglas sings, the vocal tension increases.

Note: This gambling song was not translated; to do so would put the song's luck in jeopardy.
Love Song AILEEN FIGUEROA "No matter what you look like, if you've got a good love song, you can catch anybody you want" (interview with Joy Sundberg, April 12, 1976, in Los Angeles).

Aileen Figueroa does not know the meaning of the words to this song. She explained that it was "the feeling and the power," not the words, of the song that express its spirit.

Success in love resulted in one of two forms of marriage for the Yurok, full marriage or half marriage (Waterman and Kroeber; see Bibliography):
In full marriage the man "pays" for his wife (in strings of dentalia or other treasures) and takes her to live in his town and in his house. The children are his: even in divorce he is entitled to keep them if he refuses the refund of the marriage payment. . . .

In "half marriage" the man pays less--normally about one half the value of his bride--goes to live with his wife in her fathers house or adjacent to it in the same town, and is more or less under his father-in-law's direction. The children belong to the wife, that is, to her family, and the bride price goes to the woman's father. Half marriage is legitimate; but it is presumptive indication lack of wealth and therefore connotes relatively low social rating in a society which equates wealth and rank.

Mrs. Figueroa sings the song three times, the prescribed Yurok number. Each time the melody descends, the tension in the singer's throat increases. The range is an octave, and the words are vocables.
Basket Song AILEEN FIGUEROA Yurok women are among the best basket weavers in North America. This song ensures that someone will buy the singers basket even though the woman may not consider herself a good weaver.
And then when you make your basket and nobody'll buy your basket . . . you sing your song and you throw your basket in the river and that basket will go . . . all the way through to Klamath River and get to Requa, and Requa means where the water empties into the ocean. And your basket gets to Requa and it just circles around—nobody would buy your basket. And then when you sing that song, everybody wants to buy your basket. (Interview with Aileen Figueroa, April 12, 1976, in Los Angeles.)

Again Mrs. Figueroa sings the song three times, the first two times using vocables and the third time singing the words about Requa. The melodic movement represents the flow of the river. The range is a twelfth.
Brush Dance Song (Don't Make Fun Of My Sweetheart) AILEEN FIGUEROA Although the Brush Dance is a curing ceremony, it has some social aspects. The words in Yurok songs frequently deal with non-medicinal or non-religious themes. Songs are still being composed today and sometimes have very modern themes. This piece, sung 5 without the dancers or accompanying chorus (see tracks 13 and 14), is a "light" song, which is the only kind women can sing. Men must sing the "heavy" songs but may also perform "light" ones.

Mrs. Figueroa translated the words.

The song begins with vocables and employs the words toward the end. The vocal tension is extreme. After the third strophe the song ends with a characteristic stop pattern of the Brush Dance, a voiced exhalation rapidly repeating "h^ h^ h^…"
My poor sweetheart, my poor sweetheart,
Don't make fun of my sweetheart.
Brush Dance Song (Grandpa Natt's Song) AILEEN FIGUEROA "Grandpa Natt's Song" is another light Brush Dance Song, sung here three times without accompaniment. (Another light Brush Dance Song was included in Songs of Earth, Water, Fire, and Sky, New World Records 80246-2. At the time of publication a translation was not available; the text was supplied later by Mrs. Figueroa as follows: "Never fall in love with a young man because he doesn't have any money." "What it really means," she said, was that "when they used to purchase them [brides], they were telling them, `Don't get your emotions up and fall in love with somebody because you're going to get hurt when he doesn't have the money to buy you.'") The style is basically the same as in the first Brush Dance Song on track 7. Interesting differences are the aspirated pulsation on the lowest pitches (at cadences) and the microtonal activity. (No translation could be obtained for this song.)
Love Song ELLA NORRIS As in the other love songs (see tracks 1 and 5), the magical power of the song is important. The words, like those in most magic and "lucky" songs (see Note to commentary for the Gambling Song on track 4), are not intended to be understood by general audiences; therefore no translations were provided. After singing the song four times Mrs.. Norris, who is almost ninety, runs out of breath. The melodic contour is both undulating and descending. The range is a tenth.
Seagull Song ELLA NORRIS Mrs. Norris is half Yurok and half Tolowa and speaks both languages. (Yurok is of the Algonquian family, Tolowa of the Athapascan family.)

The "Seagull Song" refers to a bird who "was a bad boy, so he got [a] whipping." Two Tolowa seagull legends tell of a seagull boy who disobeyed and was then whipped by his grandmother (Gould, Archaeology; Curtis).

The song, having the range of a ninth, starts high and descends gradually in each of the three strophes. Mrs. Norris voice slides between tones, creating pitch areas rather than notes.
Song To Stop The Rain ELLA NORRIS In a land of heavy rainfall (the rainy season lasts from about October through May) this song is appropriate. According to Mrs. Norris, "Whenever its raining, you sing it; its supposed to clear away."

The melodic movement is pendular, moving up and down among three pitches roughly approximating a major triad.
Hunting Song FLORENCE SHAUGHNESSY Florence Shaughnessy explained that this is a "lucky" song that "our hunters used to sing before taking off on the hunt" to bring success.

Mrs. Shaughnessy sings the "Hunting Song" three times, using Yurok words the last time. She also adds a two-syllable ending, "Opa," not found on any of the other songs.