Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Bidakamtata, Boya, Che'e Foka, Gallinomero, Habenapo, Kale, Kashaya, Konhomtata, Kuhlanapo, Shokowa, Yokaya


Identification. "Pomo" and "Pomoan" refer to a family of seven California Indian languages and to their speakers. The seven are often differentiated by placing a direction before the word Pomo: Southwestern Pomo, Southern Pomo, Central Pomo, Northern Pomo, Northeastern Pomo, Eastern Pomo, and Southeastern Pomo. Two of these seven groups had a name for themselves as a whole and thus can be referred to by adaptations of their self-designations: "Kashaya" (Southwestern Pomo) and "Salt Pomo" (Northeastern Pomo). The others had names for their politically separate village communities but not for the language groups as a whole. The name "Pomo" arises from a blend of two terms in the Northern Pomo language: the common noun p h ó' ma', "inhabitants," and p h o mo, "at red earth hole," a specific Village.

Location. Six of the linguistic groups lived in a compact area of northern California with a southern boundary fifty miles north of San Francisco (about 38°20 N), extending northward for ninety miles (to about 39°20 N), and from the Pacific Ocean inland for fifty miles to Clear Lake. The seventh group, the Salt Pomo, lived in a small detached area on the east side of the Inner Coast Range, about twenty miles to the northeast of the main body. The climate is of the Mediterranean type, with rainy winters and dry summers. Along the coast, the summers are foggy and cool, ideal for the redwood forests. In the interior, the summers are very hot and dry.

Demography. The aboriginal population of all the Pomo has been variously estimated at from eight thousand to twenty-one thousand. The numbers were not evenly distributed among the seven linguistic groups: the Kashaya, Salt Pomo, and Southeastern Pomo were the smallest at about 5 percent each of the total. The Eastern were about 10 percent, the Central Pomo about 15 percent, and the Southern and Northern about 30 percent each. The more numerous linguistic groups were divided into a larger number of politically independent village communities. In the devastation of the nineteenth century, over 90 percent of the population was lost, down to a nadir of about eight hundred. The population recovered somewhat, to twelve hundred by 1910 and has increased steadily since. Later censuses are quite inadequate, as they count only residents of current reservations and omit the great majority of the Pomo who live either on land whose Reserved status has been terminated or at other sites.

Linguistic Affiliation. The seven languages of the Pomoan family are quite distinct; at the maximum divergence they are more different from each other than are English and German. At a deeper time depth the Pomoan family is postulated to have been related to other Indian languages, scattered from northern California southward into Mexico, in the Hokan linguistic stock.

History and Cultural Relations

The Pomo were bordered on the north by the three Yukian groupsCoast Yuki, Yuki, Huchnomon the northeast by the Patwin, on the southeast by the Wappo and Lake Miwok, and on the south by the Coast Miwok. The diversity of Languages in a compact area suggests that the Pomo have lived somewhere in their present territory, developing their unique speech forms, for a very long time, on the order of fifteen hundred years. The Salt Pomo have a legend of migrating from a place next to other Pomo across the Inner Coast Range to their present location in recent prehistoric times. If this is so, they must have already possessed a distinct language, as its divergence from the other Pomoan languages is so great as normally to have taken a millennium or so.

The destruction of the Pomo began with the founding of the San Rafael Mission in 1817 and the Sonoma Mission in 1823, with the Southern Pomo the first to be severely affected. In the Russian River and Clear Lake regions, Mexican land grants, rapid settlement, and conversion of the land to grazing and farming deprived the Indians of their former livelihood. In 1833, an epidemic, possibly cholera, took many; in 1838-1839, many more died of smallpox. From 1834 to 1847, thousands died from these causes and from Mexican military campaigns. Survivors were pressed into forced labor, both locally and, later, in distant gold mines. Two White settlers particularly abusive of the Clear Lake Indians were killed in 1849; a U.S. cavalry punitive force swept through the area, northward along the lake and westward to the Russian River valleys, massacring along the way Southeastern, Eastern, Northern, and Central Pomo, most of whom had nothing to do with the killing of the pair of men. Especially infamous was the slaughter of an innocent fishing party at a place known since as Bloody Island. In the next few years, the surviving Pomo were rounded up and forced onto the Mendocino Indian Reserve and the Round Valley Reservation (considerably north of Porno territory and mixed with non-Pomo groups). Some escaped to return to their ancestral homes, and the Mendocino Reserve was disbanded. These Indians could not renew their earlier life and became agricultural workers.

The Kashaya have a unique history among the Pomo. Their first contact with Europeans was not with Hispanic or Anglo-Americans but with Russians at the Fort Ross colony, 1811-1842. Because of their relative freedom from forced removal to missions and reservations and their isolation from the regions of densest settlement, they are now the culturally best preserved of the Pomo groups, with more speakers of their language (perhaps sixty) than all the rest of the Pomo combined.


The Pomo groups lived in three ecological regions: coastredwood, river valley, and lake. Each region had hinterland mountainous areas used for hunting and gathering plant food. The Kashaya lived in the coast-redwood region, and the Southern, Central, and Northern Pomo, in the succession of valleys along the Russian River drainage, with territorial Extensions to the coast. The Eastern Pomo lived on easterly and northerly shores of Clear Lake. The Southeastern Pomo lived on three islands in the southeastern part of Clear Lake, with ownership and use of adjacent mainland. One Northern Pomo community had an extension to a portion of the Northwestern shore of the lake. The Northeastern Pomo lived on the east side of the Inner Coast Range. There were about seventy-five tribelets and several hundred named former settlement sites, not all occupied at one time. The village sizes varied from hamlets of fifty to major centers of over five hundred. In the middle of the twentieth century there were twenty-one small reservations, some bought by the government and others by Pomo groups for themselves. In the 1960s fifteen of these were terminated. Many Pomo still live in their ancestral territory in small rancherías or in adjacent towns where work is available; others are scattered across the United States. Three types of houses were constructed: large semisubterranean ceremonial houses, semisubterranean sweat houses, and dwellings. The dwellings on the coast were conical lean-tos of slabs of redwood bark, suitable for one family only; elsewhere the dwellings could hold several Families and consisted of a framework of willow poles with grass thatching in the valleys and tule thatching near Clear Lake.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Pomo were hunters and gatherers. From the coast, fish were taken, and shellfish and edible seaweed gathered. In the hills, valleys, and coastal plains, edible bulbs, seeds, nuts, and greens were collected, and deer, elk, rabbits, and squirrels hunted or trapped. From the rivers and streams fish were taken. In the lake, fish were plentiful, and in winter the migratory water-fowl numbered in the millions. The staple food for all the Pomo was the acorn. Both the coastal and lake dwellers allowed others to fish and take food from their unique environments. Most now work for wages and buy their food in a grocery, though many still like to gather old-time foods like acorns and seaweed. The commonest wage work in the past century has been as laborers in agricultural fields or canneries. Coastal Indians have had better paying work in lumber camps. With more education, many are now moving on to better jobs. In daily life, little clothing was worn: men usually went naked but in cold weather might wrap themselves in a robe or mantle of skin or tule; women wore a skirt of skins or of shredded bark or tule. Elaborate costumes of feathers and shells were, and still are, worn on ceremonial occasions.

Industrial Arts. As money and as gifts, beads were produced in large numbers: most common were beads made from clam shells collected principally at Bodega Bay in Coast Miwok territory. More valuable were larger beads of magnesite, known as "Indian gold." Pendants of abalone were also appreciated. Mortars and pestles of stone were shaped for grinding acorns and various seeds. Knives and arrowheads were of obsidian and chert. Boats of bundled tule were used on Clear Lake; only rafts were used on the coast. The Pomo are famous for their fine baskets.

Trade. There was aboriginally a considerable amount of trade among the various Pomo communities and with Neighboring non-Pomo. Items traded included salt from the Salt Pomo, and from the coastal groups came shells, magnesite, finished beads, obsidian, tools, basketry materials, skins, and food that one group might have in excess and another need. Beads were the measure of value, and the Pomo were adept in counting them to the tens of thousands.

Division of Labor. The men did the hunting, fishing, and fighting. Women gathered the plant food and prepared the food; especially time consuming was the grinding and leaching of the staple acorn. Men made the beads, rabbit-skin blankets, weapons, coarsely twined burden baskets, and quail and fish traps. Women wove the fine baskets.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, with few exceptions, land and hunting and gathering rights were possessed by the village community. Some Central Pomo had family ownership of certain oak trees, berry bushes, and bulb fields. For the Southeastern Pomo, land around their island villages was communally owned, but named tracts of land on the mainland were owned by individual families, who had exclusive gathering rights, although others might be allowed to hunt there. Of twenty-one small reservations existing in the middle of the twentieth century, fourteen were terminated in the 1960s and the land allocated to individual ownership. Many sold their land, and thus outsiders are living among these groups. Many have also left these reservations and bought homes in towns near and far.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin groups were the most important social unit. Such groups shared, and many still share, labor and its fruits, and support each other politically. There was an institution of "special friend" (with a term that worked like kin terms), which could be established between two Individuals by a ritual exchange of gifts. The chief with the largest kin group was usually the most powerful. Having no kin was the ultimate in poverty: there was no social security, no one to provide food when one's own efforts failed. The kinless Person was fair game for any aggressor as there was no one to avenge a wrong.

Kinship Terminology. The Pomo groups have elaborate systems of kin terms, distinguishing father's father from mother's father, and father's mother from mother's mother. Although there are distinct forms for grandchildren, in many families reciprocal terms are used. For example, in Southern Pomo, a woman who addresses or refers to her maternal grandmother by a word built on the root -ka-, or her paternal grandmother by one with -ma-, would in turn be addressed or referred to with words constructed with -ka- and -ma-, respectively. The parents of the grandparents are often designated by the grandparent terms, or more specifically by a phrase, but Southeastern Pomo has unique terms for great-grandfather and great-grandmother. The Kashaya kinship system has been labeled as of the Hawaiian type, that of the Southern Pomo as Crow, and the rest as Omaha. Nevertheless, most share certain features: siblings of grandparents are called by the same terms as the grandparents. At the parent level, most of the languages have separate terms for one's father's older and younger brothers, and for mother's older and younger sisters, but only one term for father's older and younger sisters and one for mother's older and younger brothers. Descent is reckoned evenly on both the paternal and maternal sides. It was a grave insult to say the name of the dead in the presence of a living relative. In Kashaya, however, the dead could be referred to by a kinship term suffixed by -ya', to indicate Respect.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage partners could be arranged either by the young couple or by their families, though usually all parties would have to concur. The couple could be from the same village or different ones. The man's parents presented gifts (food, beads, blankets, baskets) to the bride's parents, and gifts of nearly equal value were later returned. The young couple could take up residence with either set of parents, and they often moved from one to the other, returning to the woman's parents for the birth of the first child. Divorce was as simple as one party moving out. The levirate and sororate were both known; in fact, the word for stepfather is usually the same as the term for father's younger brother, and stepmother the same as mother's younger sister.

Domestic Unit. Three-and even four-generation Households were and still are common.

Inheritance . Land belonged to the community or family. Homes were usually burned after a death, and personal possessions were cremated with the deceased, so that there was little to bequeath. Ceremonial paraphernalia might be passed on to an apprentice.

Socialization. Children are raised permissively; threats and warnings are used much more than chastisement. Behavioral restrictions are often taught by means of stories in which the principal character breaks a rule and suffers through supernatural means, severe retribution, or often death. Children are often raised by their grandparents. Households unable to care for all their children might let some be raised by related couples who are otherwise childless.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The family and extended kin group was the most important social unit. Women had equal status.

Political Organization. The largest political unit was the tribelet or village community, which could consist of several villages. There were chiefs on several levels, hereditary and elected. There were kin group chiefs and assistant chiefs; if there were several such units in a village or village Community, one might be chosen as head chief. Duties varied and included giving counsel, negotiating with other groups, presiding over ceremonies, feasts, and work parties, and distributing the fruits of communal labor.

Social Control. Breaking any of a vast array of restrictions or taboos could lead to sickness from supernatural agents; death could be averted only by timely treatment by a shaman. The kin group controlled the actions of its members. In case of transgression against non-kin by any group member, the kin group would have to pay compensation, and failure to do so would call forth a revenge attack, either a clandestine killing or magical poisoning. Death of any kin group member, not only of the individual transgressor, was proper vengeance.

Conflict. Most conflict was in the form of feuds between kin groups and might arise from poaching or suspicion of causing sickness by magical poisoning. Alliances with other communities, even non-Pomo, might be made to carry out conflict on a larger scale. Peace was brought about by negotiation and the payment of reparations to the relatives of those killed.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. All the Pomo believed in a creator who made the world. Most equated this creator with Coyote, the animal and the mythological trickster. Some Eastern Pomo gave the creator a different name, separating him from the other roles of Coyote. All believed that there was a time in the distant past when animals could speak and had other human as well as animal attributes. Then all creatures changed to their present forms. Supernatural forces abided in everything; specific named supernatural beings could appear to one who broke a rule, such as a childbirth or menstrual taboo on a woman or her husband, and by fright cause coma and death. In the early historical period, the Pomo were performing a Kuksu ceremony, in which dancers impersonated certain spirits. In 1871, the Ghost Dance swept in from Nevada across northern California, predicting the return of the dead and the elimination of White people. This reached the Pomo in 1872 in a modification called the Earth Lodge Cult, which stressed a destruction of the world from which the faithful could be protected by gathering in subterranean lodges. Pomo from as far away as the Kashaya streamed into the Clear Lake region to await this event. When the end did not come, the participants suffered great hardship and starvation, not being prepared for life to go on. A development, known as the Bole-Maru, abandoned the belief in imminent catastrophe and stressed belief in an afterlife and a supreme being. Local dreamers and prophets among the various Pomo groups have guided further evolution, even to this day. Most Pomo now belong to some Christian church, but many still fear the consequences of breaking old restrictions.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans may conduct Ceremonies and preach and prophesy or they may doctor. They may specialize in one function or the other, or do both. In the past, they may have inherited the position, but now the powers are usually received through dream inspiration plus apprenticeship. It is said that before 1870 most shamans were men, but now women predominate.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies were held for certain annual occasions. The Kashaya still hold some of these: in May the strawberry festival for the blessing of the first fruits of the year; in the fall an acorn festival; in summer four nights of sacred dances ending with a feast on the Fourth of July; and in winter possibly another dance. At any time a feast might be pledged, conditional on a sick family member recovering, and then the pledge is carried out by the kin group. The Pomo had a great variety of amusements, games, and sports. One rough team sport that could involve an entire village was a game similar to lacrosse. But, the game in which they took the most passionate interest was that called the hand game (it involves guessing which hand of the opponent holds a marked bone). This they could play all night and would often wager all their possessions on its outcome.

Arts. Pomo baskets are considered by many to be the finest in the world. They are admired for the great variety of weaves and styles; the delicacy, evenness, and tightness of the stitching; and the artistry of the design. Most spectacular is the sun basket whose surface pattern is made of feathers of different natural colors. The art form still lives and appears to be expanding; the finer work sells for very high prices. In the past century the women have vied in producing the largest baskets (which take many years to complete) and the smallest (which approach pinhead size). The art of singing is well developed for almost any occasion: ceremonial dancing, blessing, doctoring, warding off evil, bringing good luck in the harvest, hunting, attracting a mate, gambling, and so on. Two-part singing is common: one sings the melody while another, called the "rock," keeps the rhythm vocally. Rhythm was also kept with a split-stick rattle, a foot drum, and a two-toned whistle. Tattooing of both the face and body were formerly common, but now the type and frequency of tattoos are no more than among the rest of the populace.

Medicine. Minor physical ailments like rashes, boils, sore eyes, diarrhea, constipation, or indigestion are often treated herbally by poultices or infusions of various plants and plant parts. For obvious physical injuries and recognized diseases, a White doctor is now usually consulted. Other ailments of unobvious origin might be attributed to the consequences of breaking some taboo or to poisoning (more magical than chemical) by enemies. A shaman, locally called an Indian doctor, is often successful in treating the latter problems by singing powerful songs, by the laying on of hands, or by sucking out the disease or poison. Indian doctors still practice their profession and are sometimes called in by local White people for relief of chronic ailments not helped by modern medicine.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased were formerly cremated, but about 1870 a shift was made to burial. Mourners would bring gifts (beads, baskets, robes), some specifically designated to be burned with the dead, some to be distributed later; the bereaved family would later return an equivalent in value. The house and personal property of the deceased were also burned, lest the ghost linger around the objects. The Supernatural paraphernalia of a doctor, however, might be turned over to a successor apprentice. One year after the Funeral, the bones of the deceased were dug up and burned again, along with more gifts, thus terminating the period of mourning. Even now, after the shift to burial, valuable gifts may be thrown into the grave. All the Pomo believed in an afterworld. It was important to have a sacred Indian name, bestowed from the family's ancestral stock (from either the maternal or paternal side, or from both), to announce on reaching the afterworld so that ancestors who were already there could greet the newly arrived family member.


Barrett, Samuel A. (1952). Material Aspects of Pomo Culture. Milwaukee: Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, no. 20.

Bean, Lowell John, and Dorothea Theodoratus (1978). "Western Pomo and Northeastern Pomo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 289-305. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Gifford, Edward W. (1922). California Kinship Terminologies. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 18, 1-285. Berkeley.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 78. Washington, D.C. Reprinted, 1953.

Loeb, Edwin M. (1926). Pomo Folkways. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 19(2), 149-405. Berkeley.

McLendon, Sally, and Robert L. Oswalt (1978). "Pomo: Introduction." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 274-288. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

McLendon, Sally, and Michael J. Lowy (1978). "Eastern Pomo and Southeastern Pomo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 306-323. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pomo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pomo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 14, 2017).

"Pomo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


Pomo, Native Americans of N California, belonging to the Hokan branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). The Pomo were the most southerly Native Americans on the California coast not brought under the mission influence of the Franciscans in the early 18th and 19th cent. The Pomo have been especially noted for their basketry arts, and many of their works are now valued art objects in museums and private collections. Of these arts, the Pomo developed feather-covering, lattice-twining, checker-work, single-rod coiling, and several other specializations. They now occupy several reservations in N California; the reservation near Clearlake Oaks is the site of gambling casinos. In 1990 there were about 5,000 Pomo in the United States.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pomo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Pomo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 14, 2017).

"Pomo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"PoMo." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"PoMo." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . (December 14, 2017).

"PoMo." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from