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As It Was: Yurok Killers Had to Pay for the Victim

In the early 1900s, University of California professor A. L. Kroeber collected many stories and myths told by the Yurok Indians and other tribes. His writings form an important collection of the cultural traditions of California coastal tribes. The tales he related were called tales of the “woge times” – when mythological heroes called woges lived on earth.

Yurok Johnny Shortman, born in 1840, told how killers had to pay for their victims. In Shortman’s own words, the woge required “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.’”

Source: Kroeber, Alfred L. Yurok Myths. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. 439-44. Print.

Gail Fiorini-Jenner is a writer and teacher. Her first novel "Across the Sweet Grass Hills", won the 2002 WILLA Literary Award. She co-authored four histories with Arcadia Publishing: Western Siskiyou County: Gold & Dreams, Images of the State of Jefferson, The State of Jefferson: Then & Now, which placed in the 2008 Next Generation Awards for Nonfiction and Postcards from the State of Jefferson.