“…sang like the rushing stream and the wind in the trees.”
– The shell bedecked regalia of the Yurok medicine woman.
It is interesting how the small rural region I grew up in can hold any surprises for me. I grew up in Humboldt County (Northern California) on the coast. My parents weren’t particularly outdoorsy, but we went on camping vacations often, probably because it was cheap. Many mornings I woke up in our camper next to the sea while traffic whooshed past us on Highway 101. My dad liked to go clamming so we would bundle up and greet the freezy, foggy dawn, shovel and buckets in hand. As I’ve become more interested in American aboriginal lifestyles I try to superimpose the old ways onto the redwood landscapes I grew up taking for granted and can imagine Yurok indians digging for clams at dawn. Visiting the north coast this summer I was surprised to find a Yurok Fishing Village that didn’t used to exist.
Sumeg Yurok Fishing Village is perched on a meadow near a cliff that plunges down to the grey and thunderous Pacific Ocean. The village is a reconstruction of a seasonal fishing village as would have been used by the Yurok prior to the 1800s. The village site actually would not have been located on a high plateau as it is today, it would have been situated closer to the water, but within the confines of Patrick’s Point State Park, this location is convenient since it is used for educational and ceremonial purposes by the modern Yurok tribe that built it. The reason I say “it didn’t used to exist” is because it was built after I moved away. It was a brand new treat to me when I discovered it this summer and a totally unique perspective on aboriginal shelter since I’ve been spending so much time exploring the southwestern desert region.
Living in a dugout hollow of the earth seems to be a common component of native architecture. It is a solid way to insulate the inside environment from dramatically cold or hot outside temperatures. I’ve seen the pit houses of the southwest, but the ones constructed by the northern California Yurok simply put those to shame. The Yurok family houses are deep bi-level pit houses with low wooden walls and ceilings made from redwood planks secured together with hazel sapling twine. They have a built-in covered skylight that also lets out smoke from the persistently burning central fire.
One enters the house via a small circular hole in the side that is just big enough for an adult person to crawl through, but small enough for a woman to defend against invading bears or other undesirable intruders. Storage and sleeping space was on the top level and work was done near the fire on the lower level, but in very cold weather women and children would sleep on the lower level to be close to the heat.
If a child in the household were to become “spiritually ill” the wooden portion of the house would be disassembled and the dugout of the home would become a ceremonial brush dance pit. The child and mother would sit opposite the fire from the medicine woman and the whole community would gather in full regalia to dance and eat and heal the affected family.
Other ritual purifications revolved around the sweat house. It was used by men, boys and the medicine woman. My first impression upon hearing this is to bristle at the implicit sexism of the “no girls allowed” clubhouse policy, but then I try to imagine it in modern terms. The women send their men off to the sweat house to get high and mellow out with their buddies, perhaps attain a little enlightenment in the process. Meanwhile the women get a peaceful evening to themselves without having to face substance induced nausea or heat exhaustion. Perhaps the women were considered to be enlightened already, thus not in need of torture to bring out their better selves? I’m not an expert on Yurok psychology. If someone is, I’d be interested to know why in aboriginal cultures only men participate in the Teachings of Don Juan style purification rituals.
The Yurok who would have lived in a village like this were a stone age people as is evidenced by the variety of natural tools used to fashion seaworthy canoes. They used tools made of elk antler, wood, shell, and rock to split fallen redwood, chisel, burn and polish the canoe.
I think it is pretty obvious how charmed I was by this place. It is called “Sumeg” which means “forever”. It was so named in the hope that the name would foretell its longevity. It is a sadness that the aboriginal cultures of America were not allowed to flourish and that reconstructions like these must be built in order to pay homage to the old ways instead. Funny side story related to the fact that the village is a reconstruction. While looking around inside one of the Family Houses I explained to my kids that the construction was a reconstruction, not actually ancient archaeology. The reply I received was a ripping fart echoing throughout the chamber. I said, “Why?!” The culprit said, “I’ve been holding that one. I didn’t want to fart on archaeology, but since its just a reconstruction…” Boys will be boys.
Visiting Sumeg on a quiet cloudy morning, it is easy to imagine what a paradise the northwest coastal region would have been for people who lived off the land.
Fresh and sea water is abundant…
An ocean full of sea creatures…
Meadows full of elk, deer and small game…
A bonus highlight of the Sumeg Village site was the trail that led to Ceremonial Rock. It is an enormous sea stack which indicates that at one time this clifftop meadow was under the sea. (I find this fact about many places near the California coast to be totally mind-blowing. I mean seashells in the desert? Unreal. But I digress.) Ceremonial Rock looks like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, replete with moss, vines and overgrown secret nooks. It looks ancient and surreal with stone steps leading to the top.
It definitely looks like the kind of place that should house forest spirits and the energy of ancient rituals, but when I asked the several docents and rangers at Patrick’s Point State Park about the origin of the name “Ceremonial Rock” they all said, “We have no evidence that the rock was ever used by the natives for ceremonial purposes, but it could have been.” Nice work, people. WTF? Just name it something sexy and evocative then don’t even support it with lore? Ugh, bureaucrats. Have they no poetry in their soul? Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies, I mean, why stop now? Sigh.
My kids and I followed up the wonderful surprise discovery and exploration of Sumeg Village with a hike down to Agate Beach where we examined something gelatinous on the shore that appeared to originate from the animal kingdom. We poked it with our toes and with sticks, but could not identify it. It appeared to be something long dead, but not yet disintegrated. There was no head, tail or other body parts that could give us a clue. It just looked like an oval section sliced out of the side of a whale. It was so totally gross we were completely fascinated with it. If you can identify what this thing is, please tell me. It seemed to have kind of a thick leathery skin.
We hung out on the beach admiring tide pool life and looking for agates until my hungry tween started getting droopy, whereupon I determined to leave the aboriginal foraging grounds in search of a restaurant that served both burgers and a full bar.
On the dinner menu was burgers for boys and bracing cocktails for mom, because the adventure was only half over. The evening held several hours of roller skating at Prasch Hall in Blue Lake and, because we are party animals who know how to rock Xanadu, we like to shut that place down! For the second time in our roller skating careers we were the last to leave Prasch hall. At their tender age my children have already heard, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Oh yeah, we are tomb raiders by day and at night we rock the rink hard. That’s how we roll.