History of Lake County Pomo Indians

Lake County Pomo Indians are direct descendants of the Pomos that have historically inhabited the Clear Lake area for over 11,800 years. Pomos had been fishermen and hunters, known especially for their intricate basketry made from lakeshore tule grass and other native plants and feathers.

A proliferation of fish, game, waterfowl, and plants provided an abundant life for the Pomos. Some wildlife was off limits for hunting, including the bald eagle, called “Great Chief” and “Very Dangerous Bird,” and the golden eagle, both of which continue to nest in the region today.Pomo Tule Grass Boat 

The Pomos found many uses for tule grass, including constructing intricate baskets for cooking and fishing, as well as boats for fishing. Tule grass also was used to make shelters, sleeping and sitting mats, clothing and dance regalia, and diaper filling. Shell beads, collected on yearly treks to the Pacific coast, were part of a complex currency system.

The Pomo people inhabit northern California near Clear Lake and have a strong mythology of creation and world order. It includes the personification of the Kuksu or Guksu healer spirit, spirits from six cardinal directions, and the Coyote as their ancestor and creator god.

The Pomo people participated in shamanism; one form this took was the Kuksu religion that was held by people in Central and Northern California. It included elaborate acting and dancing ceremonies in traditional costume, an annual mourning ceremony, puberty rites of passage, shamanic intervention with the spirit world, and an all-male society that met in subterranean dance rooms.  The Pomo believed in a supernatural being, the Kuksu or Guksu (depending on their dialect), who lived in the south and who came during ceremonies to heal their illnesses. Medicine men dressed up as Kuksu.

Pomo Medicine ManA later shamanistic movement was the “Messiah Cult”, introduced by the Wintun people. It was practiced through 1900. This cult believed in prophets who had dreams, “waking visions” and revelations from “presiding spirits” and “virtually formed a priesthood.” The prophets earned much respect and status among the people.

The Pomo people descend from the Hokan-speaking people in the Sonoma County, California region. This area was where coastal redwood forests met with interior valleys with mixed woodlands. In this hypothesis, about 7000 BCE, a Hokan-speaking people migrated into the valley and mountain regions around Clear Lake, and their language evolved into Proto-Pomo. The lake was rich in resources. About 4000 BCE to 5000 BCE, some of the proto-Pomo migrated into the Russian River Valley and north to present-day Ukiah. Their language diverged into western, southern, central and northern Pomo. Another people, possibly Yukian speakers, lived first in the Russian River Valley and the Lake Sonoma area. The Pomo slowly displaced them and took over these places.

In 1800 there were estimated to be 10,000 to 18,000 Pomo in total among 70 tribes speaking seven Pomo languages. The way of life of the Pomo changed with the arrival of Russians at Fort Ross (1812 to 1841) on the Pacific coastline, and Spanish missionaries and European-American colonists coming in from the south and east. The Pomo native to the coastline and Fort Ross were known as the Kashaya. They interacted and traded with the Russians.

The Spanish missionaries moved many of the southern Pomo from the Santa Rosa Plain north to Mission San Rafael at present-day Healdsburg to between 1821 and 1828. Only a few Pomo speakers moved south to Mission Sonoma, the other Franciscan mission, located on the north side of San Francisco Bay. Pomo Woman

The Pomo’s who remained in the present-day Santa Rosa area of Sonoma County were often called Cainameros in regional history books from the time of Spanish and Mexican occupation. In the Russian River Valley, a missionary baptized the Makahmo Pomo people of the Cloverdale area. Many Pomo left the valley because of this. One such group fled to the Upper Dry Creek Area. The archeology surveyors of the Lake Sonoma region believe that European encroachment was the reason why Pomo villages became more centralized; the people retreated to the remote valley to band together for defense and mutual support.  

The Pomo suffered from infectious diseases brought in by new migrants, including measles and smallpox. They did not have immunity to such diseases and fatalities were high. In 1837 a deadly epidemic of smallpox, originating in settlements at Fort Ross, caused numerous deaths of native people in the Sonoma and Napa regions.

By 1880, the population has dropped to an estimated 1450 people. The 1910 Census reported 777 Pomo, but that is probably low. Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber estimated 1,200 in the same year. According to the 1930 census there were 1,143.

Today, seven Pomo tribes reside in the Lake County area (click the links below for more information on each tribe):