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Monday, December 7, 2015


Yurok Tales

With a degree in anthropology, I've always found it fascinating to study the tales and mythology of other cultures. I thought perhaps I'd share a couple regional tales here. These are tales from the Yurok who live along the northwestern coast of California, along the lower Klamath River.  These enterprising people lived in and around the great redwood forests and along the coast.

"Yurok" actually means "downriver" -- which came from the language of the Karuk who are the Yurok's inland neighbors. Today the Yurok are the largest tribe in California. Sadly, as in the case of so many many tribes across California and the nation, the Yurok were attacked by the miners and settlers who rushed west. 

Indeed, a little known fact reveals that more than 90% of the native tribes of California were killed or died from disease during the 19th century.

As writers, looking to myths and historical tales can provide inspiration as well as insight into cultural traditions. Since many historical romance writers find incorporating Native American heroes or characters into their stories, that's all the more reason for those doing historical research into a tribe's important mythology.

One of the most important ethnographers and anthropologists to study the various California tribes, and, in particular, the Yurok, was Professor A. L. Kroeber.  He collected the tales and stories told by the Yurok during the early part of the 20th century. A professor at UC Berkeley, these writings are an important collection and continue to give writers, historians, and readers a real glimpse into the lives and culture of this important coastal nation.

The tales Kroeber related were called tales of the woge [woe-gee] times -- that time when mythological heroes lived on earth.

This first tale was related by Johnny Shortman, who was born circa 1840, and related a story about why payment had to be made whenever a killing occurred. This is what he said:   
                They [the woge] made it that when a man kills a person, he pays for him. And if the one that killed the other has a sister, he must also give her as part of the payment. And if he who was killed has relatives, one of those relatives will marry the sister. As a result, any children will be like those of the “man killed”, and it will be as if he were alive again. They do this because the woge left these instructions “that everything might go well.” 
                And if they do not pay, it was believed that others would think to themselves,“I, too, will kill.” But since they must pay, everyone is afraid. “Therefore few kill.”

Here's another tale:
How Thunder and Earthquake Made Ocean

Thunder lived at Sumig. One day he said, “How shall the people live there is just prairie there? Let us place the ocean there.” He said to Earthquake, “I want to have water there, there so that the people may live. Otherwise they will have nothing to live on.” He said to Earthquake, “What do you think?”
Earthquake thought. “That is true,” he said. “There should be water there. Far off I see it. I see the water. It is at Opis. There are salmon there and water.”

“Go,” said Thunder. “Go with Kingfisher, the one who sits there by the water. Go and get water at Opis. Get water that is to come here.”

Then the two of them went. Kingfisher and Earthquake went
to see the water. They went to get the water at Opis. They had
two abalone shells that Thunder had given to them.
“Take these shells,” Thunder had said. “Collect the water in them.”

First Kingfisher and Earthquake went to the north end of the world.
There Earthquake looked around. “This will be easy,” he said.
“It will be easy for me to sink the land.” Then Earthquake ran around.
He ran around and the ground sank. It sank there at the north end of the world.
Then Kingfisher and Earthquake started for Opis. They went to the place at the end of the water. They made the ground sink behind them as they went. At the Opis they saw all kinds of animals and fish that could be eaten there in the water at Opis. Then they took water in the abalone shells.
“No we will go to the south end of the world,” said Earthquake.
“We will go there and look for water. Thunder, who was at Sumig,
will help us breaking down the trees. The water will extend all the way
to the south end of the world. There will be salmon and fish of all kinds and seals in the water.”
Now Kingfisher and Earthquake came back to Sumig.
They saw that Thunder had broken down the trees.
Together the three of them went north.
As they went together they kept sinking the ground.
The Earth quaked and quaked water flowed over it as Kingfisher
and Earthquake poured it from their abalone shells. Kingfisher emptied his shell and it filled the ocean halfway to the north end of the world. Earthquake emptied his shell and it filled the ocean the rest of the way.
As they filled in the ocean, the creatures which would be food swarmed into the water. The seals came as if they were thrown in handfuls. Into the water they came, swimming toward shore. Earthquake sank the land deeper to make gullies and the whales came swimming through the gullies where the water was deep enough for them to travel. The salmon came running through the water.

Now all the land animals, the deer and elk, the foxes and minks,
the bear and others had gone inland. Now the water creatures were there. Now Thunder and Kingfisher and Earthquake looked at the ocean. “This is enough,” They said. “Now the people will have enough to live on. Everything that is needed is in water.”
So it is that the prairie became ocean. It is so because Thunder wished it so. It is so because Earthquake wished it so. All kinds of creatures are in the ocean before us because Thunder and Earthquake wished the people to live.   


Here's a third simple tale: 

Once upon a time, the Foxes were angry with Sun. They held a council about the matter. Then twelve Foxes were selected - twelve of the bravest to catch Sun and tie him down.
They made ropes of sinew; then the twelve watched until the Sun, as he followed the downward trail in the sky, touched the top of a certain hill.
Then the Foxes caught Sun, and tied him fast to the hill. But the Indians saw them, and they killed the Foxes with arrows. Then they cut the sinews.
But the Sun had burned a great hole in the ground. The Indians know the story is true, because they can see the hole which Sun burned.

 Myths and Legends of California and the Old Southwest
Compiled and Edited by Katharine Berry Judson, 1912

Why Coyote Has a Scraggly Tail....

Long ago, at a council meeting, the animals decided to ask the Great Creator for tails. He agreed and promised to give each animal a tail the next morning. The first animal to get up would have first choice. Coyote built a big fire and tried hard to stay awake all night, but, at last, he fell asleep. In the very early morning, the animals awoke, and each picked a tail; Gray Squirrel, Beaver, Deer, Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Raccoon, Fox, Skunk, and Rabbit. Then, Coyote awoke with a start. There was one beautiful tail left. But Coyote was so angry about sleeping late that he dragged his tail through the fire. And that is why Coyote has a scraggly tail.  

Gail L. Jenner, a past history and English teacher, began writing at age 9. Inspired by so many writers, one of her greatest thrills is having WON a WILLA Award for Best Softcover Fiction from Women Writing the West, for ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, re-released by Prairie Rose Publications in 2013.    For more, visit: OR: Her newest releases from Prairie Rose include JULY'S BRIDE and JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS! She is the author of several stories that have also been included in the PRP anthologies, PRESENT FOR A COWBOY LASSOING A BRIDE, and COWBOY KISSES. She is the coauthor of 5 regional histories and edited and contributed to ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP, an anthology of Western rural women's stories. 


  1. Gail,
    I love myths and legends. So interesting to study. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kristy! I think we have lost the "love" of these old stories in our post-modern culture....but they are wonderful tales and often reveal subtleties that are fascinating. I think they fall into that wonderful storytelling culture that Americans need to rekindle!

  2. Rich gifts we have been given. Thank you for sharing these Gail. The story of the Big Burn here in Colorado is fascinating, although fairly recent (early 1800's). Doris McCraw

    1. We should start a collection of tales and stories from the West! That might make a wonderful resource for writers and readers alike....

  3. How fun these are to read. Loved the coyote's tail. thanks for sharing with us.

    1. Hi Diana! Thanks for stopping by. Isn't it interesting how Coyote plays a role in so many tribal stories.....his character is intriguing :-)

  4. What lovely stories. I really liked the one about the coyote's tail! There are some very interesting stories in the Native people's culture and it's great when they're shared. Thank you for a lovely post Gail.

    1. Thank you, Jill. Again, Coyote is a great character and even in such a simple story, his "deeper character" becomes rather obvious!

  5. Such an interesting article. I loved the Native American stories around their legends and culture. Didn't know you had a degree in anthropology. How wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. Yes, I loved studying 'alter' ego would be as a museum curator! As writers I think we can also see how relevant and integral stories and fables and mythology is to any society or community!