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

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[Excerpt] 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.

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.”

“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.

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