Humboldt Historian editor’s note: The following story regarding Yurok doctors comes from the book To the American Indian, written by Lucy Thompson, Che-Na-Wah Weitch-Ah-Wah, in 1916. The work has been republished by Heyday Books of Berkeley and features all of the original reminiscences of the Yurok woman in addition to several new photographs.


Women doctors are made and educated, which comes about in a very peculiar way. They are usually from the daughters of wealthy families. Most of them begin quite young, and often the doctors will take one of her daughters that she selects along with her and begin by teaching her to smoke and help her in her attendance on the sick, and at the right time will commence with her at the sweathouse, while others will have a dream that they are doctors, and then the word will be given out. And in either case along in the late fall all will be made ready, the day being set.

Lucy Thompson, circa 1916. Photo via the Library of Congress. Public domain.

The sweathouse (which is the white man’s name and does not have the same meaning in our language; we call it Ur-girk) being selected, they take her to it, dressed with a heavy skirt that comes down to her ankles and which is made of the inner bark of the maple, with her arms and breast bare. They all go into the sweathouse, there being from fifteen to twenty men and women in number, she having a brother or cousin, sometimes two, that look after her. All begin to sing songs that are used for the occasion, dance jumping up and down, going slowly around the fire and to the right. They keep this up until she is wet with perspiration, as wet as the water could make her, and when she gets so tired that she can stand up no longer, one of her brothers or cousins takes her on his back with her arms around his neck and keeps her going until she is completely exhausted. Then they take her out and into the house. There she is bathed in warm water and then allowed to sleep as long as she wishes, which revives her and gives her hack her strength. On awakening she appears rested and vigorous, with a Beautiful complexion. She can now eat her meal, such as is allowed her.

While she is training for a doctor she is not allowed to drink any water or eat any fresh salmon. All the water she gets is in the acorn mush or in the manzanita berry, pounded to a flour and then mixed with water, made into a sort of mush, and warmed. They are allowed to eat all other kinds of food. These dances are kept up at intervals all through the winter months until late in the spring, when they will take her far back on the high mountains and keep her there all through the summer, never allowing her to drink water, only as mixed with mush, nor eat any fresh salmon. In the fall they bring her back home to the river, when she will go through the same performance in the sweathouse.

Sometimes she will be from three to ten years before being ready for the final graduation exercises, when she will be taken back to some almost inaccessible place on a high peak or on a very high rock where they will smoke, pray and fast for from three to five days. While at this place none eat or drink, and on leaving it the pipes are left secreted so as to be found on the next visit. On this trip there will not be more than three or four with her, and always one of them is an old doctor so as to care for her, and on coming back, after they get down the hill part way to a suitable place, they make a stop and all eat and take a rest.

The young doctor bathes herself, loosens her hair and washes it, then dries it and combs it with a hone knife. These knives of deer horn, about the size of a table knife, have a hole bored through the handle and a string tied through it, and fastens around the wrist; and in carrying it the point of the blade is up and lays against the arm so that a person would hardly know that she carried it. This comb is beautifully carved and checkered with black stripes. She gently strokes the hair with it until it is dry; then she thrusts the point through it, close to the head, gently pressing the blade down through it. She keeps the comb in motion until the hair is perfectly straight and glossy, and then she parts the hair in the middle of the forehead; then takes strips of otter skin and ties it up, letting it hang down on each side of the head and in front of each shoulder.

This girl is a virgin, as perfect in stature and active in movement and health as God can make her. She can hear hardships and punishment without complaint or murmur that would make a bear whine. After all have rested they start for home, which will perhaps take them two or three days to reach, and all the time her health is looked after to see that she is in good spirits and does not become wearied. And on arriving home she is allowed to rest for two, three or four weeks, when all is made ready to give her the final degree, this time preparing one of the large living houses for the purpose by taking off a part of the roof and fixing it so that all can come and get a chance to see the whole performance. The time is set and word is sent all up and down the river, and at the appointed time they will be there, some coming for many miles to see and take part in giving the young doctor her final degree.

At sundown the fire is made in the center of the living room, and at the commencement of the hour of darkness she is brought in, goes through the door and down into the basement, takes her place, when the others that are to help her take their places, forming a circle around the fire, and all start singing in a low and monotonous voice, jumping up and down, the young doctor taking care of herself at first and taking instructions from the old doctor who sits close by but takes no part other than to instruct her. After keeping this up for two to four hours, the young doctor becomes very warm and fatigued, and they keep close watch of her until the time comes, when one of the men takes hold of her and holds her up and helps her to stand, still wearing her down, until two men take hold of her by each arm and in this way keep her dancing until she is helpless and so limp that she can no longer go on. Then they lay her up and out of the way, still keeping on with the ceremony until daylight in the morning, when all repair to their places to sleep for a few hours, then arise, go forth, bathe and eat and go back to their homes. The young doctor does not always go through this ordeal and come out safely, as sometimes she became so warm that she would never recover from the effects of the severe punishment, but this seldom happens.

After going through this, she is pronounced a doctor and can begin practicing her profession. She is now allowed to get married if she so desires, and the most of them do and raise large families and live to be very old. They wield a big influence among the tribe if they are successful as doctors, and some of them are very successful as doctors, while others are of the ordinary class. These women doctors are seers, as when they are called to doctor the sick, they claim to tell what is the cause of the sickness and what will cure it. They suck the body where the pain is located and sing in a sort of chanting way for a while, then suck the body again and keep this up for four or six hours. If it is a serious case there will be two doctors and sometimes three, and in this case they will not agree as to the cause; if the patient gets well, there will be one of them that gets the credit for the greater part of it and sometimes all of it.

When there is a case of sickness, the relatives of the sick one decide on the doctor, and the amount of money or other valuables, or all valuables just as they may; go to the doctor, and lay it before her, at which she will accept or refuse the offer. But if it is satisfactory she will prepare to go with them, and if it is rejected she will demand more; and sometimes she will call for some valuable relic which she knows the family has in their possession, sometimes an article that has in years gone by been in the doctor’s own family, and she will strive to get it back again. If the sick one should die while she is trying to get more, they will make her pay to them all that they have laid down to her, but if she accepts the money and goes and the patient dies, then they make her return all that was given to her. If there was two or three doctors, then they all have to return all that was given to them, and then they will debate among themselves as to which one of the doctors is the best.

Some of the doctors were very successful and hardly ever lost a patient, and accumulated great wealth, owning the best fishing places and large tracts of land where they could gather acorns, hazelnuts and grass seeds, besides many slaves. They were great talkers and always had a ready answer to every question, and were almost habitual smokers, using a large pipe and smoking often. They had a wonderful constitution.


The story above was originally printed in the Winter 1994 issue of The Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.