Yurok people

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From Harold Barclay, People Without Government [1]:

Of the Californians let us briefly consider the Yurok. They were fishermen and seed (acorn) gatherers as well as hunters. The Yurok constitute small rather permanent communities composed of patrilineally related families centred around a senior male - 'the rich man'. The 'rich man' office is essentially the senior rank in the community. Its holder is overseer of the group's wealth. He directs activities at salmon weirs and on acorn grounds and could draw upon the wealth of the community to pay bride wealth or blood money. He maintains his position through his 'influence' and displays characteristics deemed proper for a Yurok man of prestige, particularly through demonstrations of his great generosity and, hence, wealth. Any decisions he might make could only be enforced by withholding his generosity or threatening to do so. Obviously, he could do greater favours for those whom he saw as the most obedient and loyal.

The Yurok possess an elaborate set of regulations concerning offences, but the technique employed to enforce these rules is not one of law enforcement, but rather one of mediation. Disputants in a case choose 'go betweens' or 'crosses' who cross back and forth between the conflicting sides carrying offers and counter offers until an agreement is reached. The go-betweens are expected to be completely impartial and to bring forth an agreement which is fair to both sides. They gather the evidence and make a judgment about damages on the basis of a scale which forms part of Yurok traditional regulations. Individuals judged as offenders by the go-betweens are expected to pay fines in accord with these regulations. Thus a man's life is valued as equal to the bride wealth paid for his mother.

Hoebel considers that these circumstances constitute a court of law (196 1 , 25). However, Kroeber clearly indicates that the opposing parties involved have to agree to the decision of the crosses (1953). They are therefore not judges with the power to compel obedience by force. They are negotiators with the moral backing of society. This is a kind of non-governmental system of dispute settlement which one finds widely dispersed throughout the world and one which we will encounter again in the descriptions to follow. That it is so common and widespread may indicate that it has proven a most successful mechanism for maintaining peace. It should be noted that the main aim of this form of justice is not to assess guilt and gloat over rights and wrongs, but rather it is to re-establish communal peace and group harmony.

Yurok depend upon other important devices such as gossip and sometimes 'rash youths' attempt to form a kind of vigilante committee to settle disputes, thus transforming a minor issue into a major conflict and possibly a blood feud.

  1. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy