Northwestern California (western part of Siskiyou County)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: 1,500
1910 Census: 800
The word Karok (also spelled Karuk) meant upstream, a name the people used to distinguish themselves from their neighbors downstream, the Yurok. Except for their language, the customs of the Karok were very much like the Yurok, resembling the people of the northern Pacific Coast (Oregon, Washington, Vancouver Island) more than those of the rest of California.
There were three main clusters of towns in Karok territory, all located along the Klamath River at the mouths of Camp Creek, Salmon River, and Clear Creek. A steep peak on the east bank of the Klamath River divided Karok land from Yurok land. Just above the mouth of the Salmon River, on a bluff overlooking a roaring rapids, was the most sacred spot of the Karok, the center of their world, called Katimin. The land back from the rivers was used for hunting and food gathering.
The Karok people had no chiefs or government system in their villages. The rights of individuals were most important to them. A village was considered just a collection of individuals. The men who had the most wealth were the most powerful people in the town.
Children were named when they were several years old. The real names, however, were seldom used. It was considered bad manners to speak a person's name. Instead, people were called by nicknames such as coyote, or old man, or shoots swiftly.
The Karok built their houses from rough planks cut from cedar or fir trees, and roofed them with two rows of thinner planks. The side walls were low, as were the doors. Inside, a plank ladder was used so people could climb down into the underground part that had been dug out. The fire pit was in the middle, and the women and girls spent much of their time here. Each family had its own house. Men came to the house only for meals.
Men and boys over the age of three slept in a smaller but similar building called the sweathouse, where there was sleeping space for the men of several families. The smoke in the sweathouse was from a fire of fir branches
Fish was a main food for the Karok, since all of their villages were near rivers. Special fishing spots were claimed by individuals, who sometimes leased them to others for a share of the catch. The men built platforms over the stream and caught the salmon with a "lifting net" lowered on a frame. These nets, as well as smaller nets used to scoop fish out of the rapids, were made of fibers from the wild iris leaves. Harpoons were also used to spear fish and eels. After the main run of salmon occurred in the spring, the fish would be dried to provide a supply of food for the year.
Deer, elk, and bear were hunted for food by setting noose snares and then using dogs to run the animals into the snares. Small rodents and birds were also caught in traps made of twigs and netting. Sometimes the meat was cooked over an open fire, or sometimes with edible plant bulbs in an oven made of earth and stones.
Acorns were the primary plant food of the Karok, who cracked and dried them to remove the tannic acid, then made a dough by mixing the ground flour with water. This dough could be made into bread, or boiled in a basket to make a mush. The Karok gathered other nuts, seeds, and roots for their meals. They got salt from the coastal Yurok people, who obtained it from seaweed.
There were many deer in the mountains through which the Klamath River ran, and their skins were used by the Karok for clothing. Women wore a fringed deerskin apron around the waist, decorated with shells and pine nuts. In cold weather, women wore a cape of deerskin or fur over the shoulders. Men used deerskin to make a simple loincloth. When traveling in the mountains, they wore moccasins made of deerskin, and also buckskin leggings. They used branches and vines to make snowshoes for use in the winter.
When girls grew up, they had three stripes tattooed on their chins. The tattoo was done with soot and grease, using a sharp stone.
The Karok used wood and elk horn to make the tools they needed, using stone adze (ax-like tools) to shape the wood and horn. They made wooden spoons and paddles for use in cooking, and wooden seats and headrests used by the men. Elk horn and mussel shells were also used for making spoons. Obsidian (black volcanic glass) was used to make knife blades, which were attached to wooden handles.
Bows and arrows were used by the Karok. The bow was made of yew wood, and the arrows of syringa wood with obsidian arrowheads. When men were engaged in a conflict with another group, they protected themselves with vests of elkhide or wooden rods bound together with vines.
Baskets were used for carrying food and other things, and for storing, cooking, and eating food. Hazel twigs and pine roots were the primary materials used for the baskets, which were tightly woven and decorated with ferns.
The boats that the Karok used to travel along the rivers and streams near their villages were purchased from the Yurok people who lived closer to the ocean, and who made the boats from redwood logs. The boats had square prows and round bottoms which worked well for travel in rushing rivers that had many rocks. The swift water lifted the boat so that the square end met no resistance, and rocks could be easily avoided by a stroke of the steersman's paddle. A second paddle, made from a pole 6 to 8 feet long with a narrow heavy blade at one end, was used by a boatman who stood in the boat.
The Karok used dentalium shells, which they called ishpuk, as money, trading strings of shells for a boat or for a wife. Dentalium shells are tube-shaped, with hollow middles so they can be strung on a string, end to end. The longer the shell, the more valuable it was. The Karok said that a man's life was worth about 15 strings, though the value of a respected man was greater than that of a bad man. The worth of a wife depended on the wealth of her family.
Deerskins were also a sign of wealth for the Karok. A man who had many fine deerskins, especially very light-colored ones, would display them proudly at dances. Red woodpecker scalps were highly prized. They were used for decorating headdresses, and as a valuable item in a trade.
The Karok called their main ceremonies world making, like a new year's rite that renewed their world. Ceremonies were held in the spring when the salmon were going upriver, and in the early autumn in connection with the harvesting of the acorn crop. The Deerskin Dances were a part of the autumn ceremonies. The Jumping Dance was held in the spring.