To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman

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The reminiscences of Lucy Thompson (Che-na-wah Weitch-ah-wah) were originally published 100 years ago, in 1916 by a small print shop in Eureka, CA. Lucy married a white man, but was one of the respected members of her tribe, and saw fit to pass along a document of their dying customs. The Yurok lived in north west California (present-day Del Norte and Humbolt counties), beautiful land that I’ve spent a tiny bit of time camping and hiking through. Armed with this document of Indian life, I want to go back and find traces of the civilization that we wiped from the map with the influx of whites during the gold rush and beyond. She describes intricate details about their religious ceremonies and festivals, how houses and boats and tools were constructed, the birthing of babies, and even creation tales that mirror the Christian stories of Adam/Eve/the flood/Jesus. The daily life she outlines seems just as bound by patriarchal rules, with the men sleeping separately in their luxurious sweat lodges and talking big, dreaming big, playing sports, while the women focused on survival with food and shelter. One bright spot– if you were a girl, you could apparently say that you had a dream that you were a doctor, and the men must help you train to become one then.

Lucy gets understandably melancholic about her ancestors’ ways eroding to nothing. “It is sad for me to write of the inside working of the lodge, and who can blame me. My people are passing away, being absorbed by the white race.”

Already our great rulers are at rest, and forever; laureled with the glories of the primeval ages that have passed away in silence. As a nation, like the ancient Egyptians, we have grown old and passed away; we have seen a great civilization rise to the highest of its splendors and pass away to another land beyond recall. Today we see another civilization endowed with a splendor of its own, rising over the debris of the eternal years.

She mentions that there are various classes within the Indians, and some are wealthier than others. Women can hold their own property, as well. I wonder how much of this was infiltration of white settler values further contaminating the cooperative economics of the tribes.