Cultural Conservation In A North American Indigenous Community


Yurok dance feather regalia in cedar boxes, at Dave Severns’s camp on the Yurok Indian reservation. Credit Talia Herman for The New York Times

As important as cultural conservation is to us it gets half as much attention in these pages as nature conservation (a matter of life and death), so we are more than happy to share stories like this one (thanks to Patricia Leigh Brown) when they land on our desk:


Dance feather regalia dry in the sand, made by Dave Severns, whose culture camp teaches young men a nearly forgotten art form. Credit Talia Herman for The New York Times

KLAMATH, Calif. — The gathering known simply as “Uncle Dave’s camp” begins at daybreak on the pebbled banks of the Klamath River, the age-old spruce and redwoods on the bluffs shrouded in mist.

Here on the Yurok Indian Reservation near the Oregon border, so remote that certain areas have yet to receive electricity, young male campers sit on cedar logs while keeping tabs on a river rock heated in a fire. The rock, hand-hollowed and chiseled with basketry patterns, contains a molten glue made from the dried air bladders of sturgeons. The syrupy concoction is a crucial ingredient for making feathered headdresses, hide quivers, obsidian-blade sticks and other forms of ceremonial dance ornaments, or regalia, that are at once works of art and living conduits to the spirit world.

The fishing camp that David Severns, a tribal member, started over 20 years ago has grown into a grass-roots culture camp dedicated to making regalia the old-fashioned way, before mail-order. The source is nature itself — elk and deer sinew, baleen from a whale stranded in the river and delicate fibers from wild irises culled from forested high country. It is part of a broader revival of ancestral ceremonial practices, including dances and songs, among native youths. The flower dance, which honors a young woman’s coming of age, is flourishing anew not only among the Yurok — the largest tribe in California and one of the poorest — but the Hupa, Karuk and other Northern California tribes.

“Regalia is collective medicine,” said Mr. Severns, 54, who spends most of April through October sleeping under the stars with the campers and his wife, Mara Hope Severns, 49, from the Kanatak tribe in Alaska. “To make them, you’ve got to have a pure heart, because the character of a person is reflected.”

The glue cooking in the rock, four sturgeons’ worth, may be an apt metaphor for the deep cultural connections shared by longtime campers. Mr. Severns refers to them as “my boys,” even though many are in their mid-20s and some have children of their own, whose tiny wet footprints crisscross the sand. (Mothers and wives are present, especially on weekends, but women are not allowed to touch men’s regalia and vice versa.)


Wautec Thompson, 9, making Yurok dance regalia at a camp on the reservation. The art form is having a resurgence among young tribe members. Credit Talia Herman for The New York Times

Each spring, Mr. Severns and the young men erect the camp from logs that have washed downstream during winter rains. Soon, the stretch of river known as “Blake’s Ripple,” for his maternal great-grandfather, springs to frenetic life. It’s a place where finely-crafted cedar boxes holding eagle and condor feathers are hollowed out with an adze, and brothers braid each others’ hair.

The camp is subsidized with about $4,000 in annual disbursements that Ms. Severns receives as an Alaska Native, along with elk, deer and groceries donated by tribal well-wishers.

Mr. Severns comes from a family of regalia makers. His grandmother lived in a traditional plank house and would send him off for several days to do chores for elders, which taught him the value of kindness, he said. He draws out prospective campers: “The brother who looks after the little brother. The boy who catches fish and is happy to give them up.”…

Read the whole article here.

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