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What is the Karuk Tribe?

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  • Written By: Bethney Foster
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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The Karuk tribe, also spelled Karok, is a group of Native American people with tribal headquarters off of State Route 96 in Happy Camp, California. The tribe has about 3,300 members and has tribal board meetings in the towns of Yreka, Happy Camp, and Orleans in California. The tribal government has more than 100 employees, and the tribal council is made up of nine members.

The tribe does not have a reservation, but does have several tracts of land held in federal government trusts and others that are owned by the tribe. These parcels total just more than a square mile (2.9 km). The federal government has recognized the Karuk tribe of California since 1979. In 1985, the tribe adopted a constitution.

Traditionally occupying lands along the Klamath River, the name of the Karuk tribe translates to “upriver people.” The Karuk were hunters and gathers, and depended on salmon fishing. Fishing was done using large dip nets from platforms. Harpoons and gaffs were also sometimes used.

The Karuk tribe traditionally had no formal political structure or leadership. There were no crimes against society, but only against an individual. Those who committed crimes had to make restitution to the harmed party. The tribe’s traditional beliefs depended upon rituals that included sweating, bleeding, and fasting. The Karuk were the only tribe in California to grow tobacco.

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Continuing with their traditional way of life and having little contact with Europeans until 1850, the California Gold Rush changed that forever. The Karuk tribe had their villages burned, lands seized, and diseases devastated their population. Some Karuk people were removed to the Hoopa Valley Reservation, others moved away from traditional lands, and some remained.

Many in the tribe continue to engage in traditional activities such as hunting, storytelling, and fishing. Ceremonial dancing is also a part of the Karuk tradition and includes the brush dance, jump dance, and Pikyavish. The Pikyavish, known as the world renewal ceremony, has been revived and is held in late summer. The ceremony includes priestly rituals, dancing, and singing.

With only eight fluent speakers of its language known to be alive in 2002, the Karuk tribe began an effort to preserve its traditional tongue. The tribe has a language committee that works to teach members the language, and has updated and distributed a dictionary of the language from the 1940s. The Karuk language is part of the Hokan language family.

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