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Pomo (pronounced PO-mo) means “at red earth hole” or “those who live at red earth hole.” The name most likely refers to magnesite (pronounced MAG-nuh-site), called po by all the tribes, a mineral used to make red beads, or to the red clay mined in that area, often mixed with acorn flour to flavor and color bread.


The Pomo lived in northern California along the Pacific Coast and some distance inland, near Clear Lake and the Russian River in present-day Mendocino, Sonoma, and Lake Counties. In modern times they live on or near about two dozen mostly tiny, isolated rancherias and reservations located throughout their homeland.


In the early 1800s there were between thirteen thousand and twenty thousand Pomo. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 4,766 people identified themselves as Pomo. The 2000 census showed 5,092 Pomo, and 8,011 people claimed to have some Pomo heritage.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

The Pomo have lived in the hills and valleys north of present-day San Francisco for more than ten thousand years. Historians believe that early Pomo lived around the shores of Clear Lake, but a western branch split off from the rest, settling along the Russian River and near the Pacific Coast. There were more than seventy Pomo tribes divided into seven groups: Northern Pomo, Central Pomo, Southern Pomo, Southwestern Pomo or Kashaya, Eastern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, and Northeastern Pomo.

For thousands of years the Pomo lived calm, well-ordered lives filled with laughter and song. Their story after contact with Europeans is a tragic one. They suffered brutality at the hands of Russians, Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, who polluted their lands, made slaves of them, and slaughtered innocent men, women, and children. By the late nineteenth century only one thousand or so Pomo remained, homeless on their own former lands. The tribe regained some Pomo land in the twentieth century, and their population began to grow.


Russians in Kashaya Pomo territory

Little information is available about Pomo history and ways of life before the arrival of white men in the nineteenth century. The Pomo may have had a brief encounter with British explorer Francis Drake (1540–1596) after his 1579 landing in Coastal Miwok territory (see entry) to the south of the Pomo. If there was such an encounter, it was not recorded.

Groups of Pomo were spread out over a large territory, so they did not all encounter the same nationalities of white men. Each incoming group—first Russians, then Spanish, then Mexicans, and finally white Americans—played a part in the near-destruction of this large and important California tribe.

The Kashaya Pomo lived along the Pacific coast in present-day northwest Sonoma County. They were the only Pomo group to encounter the Russians, who established Fort Ross in 1811 on Bodega Bay. The Russians took advantage of the big profits to be made from sea otter furs, but they also kidnapped and enslaved Pomo women and children and used them as hostages to force Pomo men to hand over furs and food.

Like the Tlingit tribe (see entry) to the north, the Pomo resisted the Russian invaders, but the resistance mostly consisted of a few escapes and small-scale attacks on individuals. By the time the Russians left in 1842, many of the Kashaya Pomo had died from murder, overwork, or diseases brought by Europeans.

Important Dates

1811: The Russians establish Fort Ross in Kashaya Pomo territory.

1817: The first Spanish mission is founded on Pomo land.

1850: The U.S. Army massacres most residents of a small Pomo village.

1856: Many Pomo move to the Mendocino and Round Valley reservations.

1881: Pomo chiefs organize a fund-raising drive to buy rancherias.

1958: The state of California terminates the status of many Native American tribes, including the Pomo rancherias.

1983: Tillie Hardwick wins her case and federal reservation status is restored to 17 California rancherias.

Spanish and Mexicans exploit Southern Pomo

Meanwhile, the Spanish, who claimed California as their own, feared its takeover by the Russians or British and decided to establish forts and missions there. The forts would protect California for Spanish settlement, while the missions would convert California Natives to the Roman Catholic religion and teach them skills so they could become slaves or laborers for the Spanish settlers.

The Southern Pomo came under the control of Spanish missionaries when a mission was built at San Rafael by 1817. About six hundred Pomo people were baptized at San Rafael Mission and at San Francisco de Solano Mission.

In 1822 California became part of the Mexican Republic, and the missions were closed. Mexicans took over Pomo lands, resulting in skirmishes between the new ranchers and the Pomo people. This was especially true in the Clear Lake region. One Mexican landowner, Salvador Vallejo, tried to force a group of Eastern Pomo to harvest his crops. When they refused, he sent Mexican troops after them, and the soldiers massacred some of the men who were sitting peacefully in their sweathouse. Thousands of Pomo were captured or died between 1834 and 1847 at the hands of Mexican soldiers. Trade in Native American slaves and epidemics of smallpox and cholera claimed thousands more lives.

Pomo mistreated by American settlers

The United States won California from Mexico in 1848, and California became a state in 1850. American settlers immediately poured in and seized Native lands. They soon reached Pomo groups who had previously had little contact with whites: the Northern Pomo, Northeastern Pomo, and Central Pomo. Hostile relations flared between these new settlers and the Pomo people, just as they had with the Mexican settlers.

Matters came to a head after two white landowners, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, were killed. For three years the pair had been forcing hundreds of Pomo to work on their ranch, even though slavery was illegal in California. Tired of being starved, beaten, and even shot, some Pomo slaves rebelled, killed both of their tormentors, and fled into the hills.

U.S. Army soldiers sent to capture those responsible for the killings came upon a peaceful group of Eastern Pomo gathered on a small island on Clear Lake. Innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered at the site, which was later renamed Bloody Island by the Pomo. The soldiers continued eastward, killing as they went, though their victims had nothing to do with the murders of Kelsey and Stone.

Pomo forced onto reservations

Hoping to end the violence taking place throughout California, in 1851 the U.S. government sent agents to discuss treaties with Native American tribes. In these treaties, California tribes, including the Pomo, agreed to give up most of their lands to the U.S. government in exchange for a total of about 7.5 million acres that would be set aside for reservations.

White Californians were horrified that so much land was being given away (about 8 percent of the state). They were also afraid that the Native Americans they had been using as slave labor would disappear onto reservations. They pressured the U.S. Senate to reject the treaties. In the end only 1.2 million acres were set aside for reservations.

The Pomo people were rounded up and forced to move to the Mendocino and Round Valley Reservations, along with Native Americans from several other tribes. Settlers immediately took over Pomo lands. Ten years later, in 1867, the Mendocino Reservation was abruptly closed, and many of the remaining Pomo were left homeless. Some returned to the area of their homeland, only to find the best land had been taken over by whites. They settled on poor, unwanted pieces of land in the region. Their population continued to decline as people died from diseases, and their traditions and beliefs began to disappear.

By the turn of the century the remaining Pomo, numbering only a little over one thousand, lived a poverty-stricken existence. They survived on fish, game, and plants, in addition to the few items they could afford to buy in stores. To the dominant white culture, they were seen as second-class citizens or worse, kept apart from whites, and discriminated against.

Landowners again

Native groups began to rally, however, and they united to buy pieces of their former land. The Pomo pooled the meager sums they earned by working on white-owned ranches, and the money earned by selling their beautiful feathered baskets. They bought the rancherias of Pinoleville and Yokaya. (Rancheria is a Spanish term for a small ranch.)

Religious groups and some government officials became involved in the rancheria movement, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which was partly designed to counteract the damage done by previous Indian policies, supplied funds to buy more reservations and rancherias. The Pomo bought additional land. They also became skilled at using the American justice system to their advantage. In 1907 an Eastern Pomo named Ethan Anderson won a lawsuit that gave non-reservation Native Americans the right to vote. Legal actions by the Pomo and other Native groups resulted in all Native Americans being granted full U.S. citizenship in 1924.


New federal government policies in the 1950s resulted in a change of status for California rancherias, including many Pomo settlements. If the rancherias agreed to terminate their special relationship with the federal government (a relationship called federal recognition), they were promised help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in improving life on the rancherias. These promises of help were never carried out. Instead Pomo land was divided among members of the rancherias, and many of the owners later lost their property because they could not make mortgage or tax payments.

Pomo activists

In 1979, when it became obvious that the BIA was not going to fulfill its promises, a Pomo woman named Tillie Hardwick filed a class action lawsuit against the United States of America on behalf of 34 illegally terminated rancherias. She finally won in 1983, and several rancherias were successful in regaining federal recognition. (Federal recognition means the tribes and groups have a special legal relationship with the U.S. government. The relationship entitles them to certain benefits and financial assistance.) During the 1980s and 1990s the members of the remaining Pomo rancherias fought to regain their status. By the turn of twenty-first century all Pomo reservations and rancherias were once again federally recognized.

Many Pomo activists brought attention to the plight of the Native Americans during the 1970s and 1980s. By taking over unoccupied public buildings and making demands, they received publicity as they fought for many of the rights they had long been denied. Although many of these takeovers ended in arrests, others were successful. A Central Intelligence Agency base, vacant for more than a decade, was eventually transferred to the tribe. It is now the home of Ya-Ka-Ama, meaning “Our Land” in Pomo, an American Indian Learning Center. This is one of the many ways the Pomo are working to keep their culture, language, and traditional arts alive. At the same time, they continue to explore ways to work within the American system to expand their land base and to find ways to earn money from the tourists who flock to their beautiful homeland.


The Pomo believed in many spirits, including a creator-hero who gave his name to the secret religious society called Kuksu. The Kuksu Society was open only to a small group of men who were selected while very young to go through a long training process. Once they became members, they were responsible for carrying out many of a village’s ceremonies and public affairs. At ceremonies, Kuksu dancers pretended to be spirits and wore special headpieces made of sticks with feathers at the ends. They generally painted their bodies black. The dance rituals ensured good luck, such as abundant acorn and fruit harvests or protection against natural disaster and enemy attack.

A lesser religious society called the Ghost Society was open to all young men and, in some Pomo groups, to women, too. The Ghost Society performed dances like those of the Kuksu to honor the dead. Both the Ghost and the Kuksu societies were led by professional spiritual guides, or shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun).

Ghost dances and dream dances

After their society was disrupted by the forced move to reservations, the Pomo adopted the Ghost Dance Religion of 1870. (For more information, see Maidu entry.) When that religion failed to deliver on its promise to rid the world of white people, the Bole-Maru or New Ghost Dance religion was adopted.

“Bole-Maru” translates roughly as “spirits of the dead.” The Bole-Maru religion combined elements of the old Ghost Society and the Ghost Dance Religion. Its leaders were people who had received visions in dreams; some of those visions included songs and dances, which they then taught to men and women of the tribe. The religion stressed moral behavior as well as belief in an afterlife and a supreme being. It opposed drinking, fighting, and stealing. The religion inspired hope in a desperate people, enough hope that the Pomo began to buy land of their own where they could preserve their culture (see “History”),. They still practice the Bole-Maru religion.


There were originally seven Pomo languages; three remain in use in the early twenty-first century. The 1990 U.S. census reported that 112 Pomo spoke their language in the home. Pomo language education programs and a growing number of published books on the subject are keeping interest in the language alive.

Pomo Words

Although the seven Pomo languages were related and occasionally used identical or similar words, they were not enough alike that speakers of each language could understand each other. Interestingly enough, one word all the tribes shared in common was po, the name they used for the red mineral magnesite.

Pomo Words
EnglishCentral PomoEastern PomoNorthern Pomo
“red”tasg’ida ta’ts


At one time there were more than seventy independent Pomo tribes. They were further divided into groups called tribelets, which ranged in size from 125 to more than 500 persons. A tribelet is a type of organization in which one main village was surrounded by a few minor outlying settlements. Villages were made up of one or more family groups, who chose one group to be leaders.

Some villages had only one chief in charge, while others had as many as twenty. Women have always held a high position in Pomo society. There have been female chiefs, and among some groups, the right to become a chief passed from a chief to his sister’s son, if the young man showed leadership qualities.

In modern times most Pomo reservations and rancherias are governed by elected tribal councils. Some tribe members, though, had difficulty adopting a U.S. pattern of government because it did not conform to their traditional matriarchal (passed down the line through the mother) form of leadership.

Pomo Population: 2001 Bureau of Indian Affairs Records

According to the records kept by the U.S. Bureau of Indians Affairs, the following figures indicate the number of members enrolled at each reservation or rancheria in 2001. A few of these are shared with other tribes, so the numbers reflect the total population for that group.

Pomo Population: 2001 Bureau of Indian Affairs Records
TribeTribal Enrollment in 2001
Big Valley Rancheria696
Cloverdale Rancheria427
Coyote Valley358
Dry Creek Rancheria583
Elem Indian Colony104
Graton568 (also Miwok)
Hopland Band692
Lower Lake53
Manchester Point Arena621
Potter Valley Rancheria156
Redwood Valley156
Robinson Rancheria433
Round Valley Reservation3,494 (multiple tribes)
Scotts Valley Band147 (also Wailaki)
Sherwood Valley Rancheria367
Upper Lake145

Tiller, Veronica E. Velarde. Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations. Albuquerque, NM: BowArrow Publishing Company, 2005.


Traditional economy

The Pomo economy was based on hunting and gathering; they also had a brisk trading economy that used money. Pomo money came in two forms: clamshells, which were ground into regular circles, had a hole bored into them, and were strung on strings like beads; and beads made from a mineral called magnesite. When the mineral was treated with fire, it turned different shades of pink, orange, and tan. The value of clamshell disks depended on the age of the clamshells, the thickness of the disk, and the length of the strung disks. Magnesite beads were considered more valuable and were traded individually rather than strung.

Food and non-food products were bartered at trade-feast gatherings. Direct money transactions—beads for fish, for example—were a common occurrence, allowing Pomo people to establish a surplus of goods. Magnesite beads were often used for gambling.

It is because of their use of money that the Pomo developed a reputation as great counters; they dealt in sums in the tens of thousands without using multiplication or division. Their knowledge of money proved useful when it came time for the Pomo to buy land from the U.S. government.

After confinement on reservations

Pomo rancherias have always been too small to support many people. By the late nineteenth century the people were forced to seek seasonal work on white-owned lands. They picked fruit and hops (a plant used in making beer), traveling from farm to farm to follow the crops. Women wove baskets to sell and worked doing others’ laundry. Meanwhile traditional Pomo hunting and gathering practices were all but lost.

Both World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45) brought employment to Pomo men, who left to serve in the military or take jobs in cities. Women went to work in cities as maids. In modern times only about one-third of the population remains on the rancherias and reservations. They continue to struggle to support themselves. Some members farm tribal land, but much of it is not suitable for agriculture. Tribal government also provides some jobs. Most groups have opened businesses to cater to the region’s many tourists, and many have casinos to provide employment and fund tribal programs.

A more recent effort has been the Indian center, called Ya-Ka-Ama, in Sonoma County. This all-purpose center has a Native plant nursery, which teaches modern ways of farming, among other educational projects. In addition, the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, an organization made up of ten tribal groups including the Pomo, is restoring 3,800 acres of mountainous land along the California coast in Mendocino County as a model of how Native Americans make use of the land. Regarding the project, tribal council member Priscilla Hunter told Sierra magazine: “We hope this project will teach all Native American people to get back to protecting Mother Earth, and to stand up and say that Native American people won’t be pushed around any more. It is a blessing for each of us to come up here and be part of this land.”

Daily life


The Pomo placed a strong emphasis on the importance of families, as they still do. Their traditions include sharing land and homes with family members in close-knit communities.

Women in Pomo society

Pomo women were rare among Native Americans in enjoying a fairly high status. They could be chiefs. Some became members of the tribe’s secret societies, but they were barred from certain other societies, which held “devil-raising” performances carried on to frighten women.

Young couples often lived with the bride’s family in homes occupied by several families. The oldest wife in the house was its owner. The modern history of the Pomo often makes mention of the many skilled women whose beautiful baskets were sold to white collectors to support the tribe during hard times and to help build up a land base for the Pomo people after they became homeless.


Four types of structures were common to all Pomo groups: dwelling houses, temporary or seasonal shelters, sweathouses, and ceremonial houses built partly underground. Building materials and shapes of houses varied, because some tribelets lived where redwood was plentiful, while others resided in the valley-foothill region.

For groups in the redwood forest, a typical family structure was a conical house made of slabs of redwood bark. These were small, only eight to 15 feet (2 to 5 meters) in diameter and perhaps 6 feet (2 meters) in height. Though generally a single-family dwelling, they could house as many as twelve people. The assembly or ceremonial houses were much larger, as large as 70 feet (21 meters) in diameter, supported by beams and partially covered by earth so that, from a distance, they appeared to be tiny hills.

Valley and Lake Pomo groups built circular, rectangular, or L-shaped structures of brush or reeds. The Clear Lake groups used the abundant tule (pronounced TOO-lee; a plant material) from the marshes for the construction of multifamily dwellings up to 40 feet (12 meters) in length that housed twenty people. The tule reeds were dried and bound together with split grape vines.


All Pomo groups had abundant natural resources, and they were keenly aware of the proper times for hunting and gathering the various foods. Naturally, the Pomo diet varied depending on a group’s environment; more seafood was eaten along the coast, and more game was consumed inland.

Lake, stream, and river fish were caught with spears, basketry traps, or nets by fishermen in lightweight, raft-like canoes. Clear Lake Pomo groups dried much of their catch, usually carp and blackfish, with salt that they acquired through trade with the Northeastern Pomo. The people hunted deer, elk, and antelope. Deer might be stalked by one person wearing a deer-head mask or by groups. The Pomo hunted bear with bows and arrows, spears, and clubs. Though they ate some birds, others, such as the crow and owl, were not killed because they had an important place in Pomo religious life.

The people also gathered and ate insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars. Various grasses, roots, berries, nuts, bulbs, and edible greens were eaten while in season, but their favorite food was the acorn. They ate ground acorn meal daily, generally served as a mush along with dried blackfish. While their methods of obtaining food have changed over time, the Pomo continue to eat traditional foods.

Sea Bacon

Many of the coastal tribes of California gathered seaweed. They used it in cooking or dried it for salt, which they used or traded. Charles Gitchell Jr., a Southwestern Pomo from the Russian River area, learned this seaweed recipe from his mother. This snack has been nicknamed “sea bacon,” because it is salty and crisp.

  • Sea Weed

We go and gather Sea Weed.

Wash your Sea Weed real good to get the sand out of it.

Take it home.

Put on a cooky sheet and drip some oil on each one.

Then cook until dry at 200 [degrees].

Then have some Sea Bacon.

Gitchell, Charles, Jr. “Sea Bacon.” Native Tech: Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes. (accessed on on September 8, 2007).


Older Pomo men and women were respected by the young, with whom they spent a great deal of time. Elders tended the fires and the home, allowing the younger adult members of the tribe to hunt and gather. Special bonds formed between elders and youngsters. In some groups, for example, a young boy slept with his grandfather. He kept the old man warm at night, and in return, the grandfather taught the boy tribal history.

After they moved to reservations, Pomo children faced many hardships. Nearby towns refused to allow them to attend public schools. Pomo parents filed lawsuits challenging this practice. In one instance, the local school board established a separate school for Native American children. In 1923 a Pomo man named Stephen Knight took action on behalf of his daughter; his lawsuit resulted in the end of school segregation in Mendocino County. Segregation is a policy of separating a race or class of people from the rest of society.

Clothing and adornment

Pomo men usually wore no clothing but sometimes put on a breechcloth, a garment with front and back flaps that hung from the waist. Women wore long skirts of shredded bark or tule. Both sexes sometimes wore mantles, cape-like garments consisting of long pieces of hide or woven plant fibers that tied at the neck and were belted around the waist. Wealthy people kept warm with blankets made of rabbit hides or other skins. The poor had to make do with shredded willow bark or other fiber.

Generally the Pomo went barefoot, but for special occasions they put on deer-hide boots and tule moccasins. Women also donned finely shredded skirts and hide mantles, and men wore feather headdresses.

Hair was worn long by both sexes, either loose or tied at the nape of the neck. Women wore ear ornaments decorated with beads and feathers. Clamshell beads, abalone shells, and feathers were used in belts, neckbands, and wrist bands, but these were usually saved for special occasions. Some women wore dance headdresses made of fur, feathers, and beads.

Healing practices

Pomo healing was closely connected with their religion, since healers (shaman) were also heads of the Kuksu Society (see “Religion”). Shaman set broken bones and treated ailments, such as stomach problems, with herbs. Most illnesses, however, were thought to be caused by the patient, who had either broken some rule and angered the spirits or had earned the dislike of another member of the group. Shaman cured these illnesses by singing or by sucking out the sick-making poison. There were also bear doctors, who paid an annual fee for their position. They wore a bear’s skin and head and were thought to have the power to both heal and cause illness.

Pomo Bear Doctors

In 1906 a Pomo man who had once been a bear doctor, told this story. According to his account, which began in the days when animals were human, a small bird carried a bear carcass to the village so all could eat. The bird received a bearskin in payment. Later he got one for his brother. The two of them stitched up the bearskins until they looked real. Wearing the skins, they killed other animals, then returned to their village and pretended to be sad about the deaths.

When they put on their suits it was only necessary to say in what direction they wished to go and what they wished to do, and the suits would bear them thither by magic.… Upon this occasion they went eastward, and finally, in the late afternoon, met Wildcat carrying upon his back a very heavy load. They immediately attacked and killed him, but did not cut him to pieces as they had Wolf. It is a custom, even now, among bear doctors never to tear to pieces or cut up the body of a victim who is known to have in his possession valuable property. Hence they stabbed Wildcat only twice. When they looked into the burden basket which he had been carrying they found a good supply of food and a large number of beads of various kinds. They took only the bag of beads, which one of them secreted inside his suit. Upon reaching their place of seclusion they removed their suits and were soon back in the village.…

[After Wildcat’s funeral] when the people heard of the killing of two more hunters by two bears, they suspected the brothers, and formulated a plan to spy on them. All were to go hunting and certain ones were to keep a close watch on these two, and see just where they went and what they did.…

Finally, one of the hunters on the east side of the lake saw the bears and shouted, “Look out there; two brother deer are coming down the hill!” There were two trees standing some distance apart with a thick, brushy place on each side. One hunter hid behind each tree. A third hunter.… was but a few feet from these trees when the bears came close to him, so he dodged between the trees and the bears followed.

Immediately the two hunters behind the trees attacked the bears from the rear with their clubs and jerked the masks from their heads. The other hunters came up armed with clubs, bows and arrows, and stones, and found the bear doctors standing very shame-facedly before their captors.

They finally confessed to the murders, and took the hunters to their hiding place. Here they exposed their entire secret and told all the details of their work: how they dug the cavern, how they made the ceremonial outfits, and how they killed people. The hunters then stripped the bear doctors and took them, together with all their paraphernalia, and the property they had stolen, back to the village, placed them in their own house, tied them securely, and set fire to the house. Thus ended the bear doctors. That is how the knowledge of this magic was acquired. It has been handed down to us by the teaching of these secrets to novices by the older bear doctors ever since.

Barrett, S. A. Pomo Bear Doctors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1917. Available online at at http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/pbd/index.htm.


The Pomo were known for their many basket-weaving techniques using a large variety of roots and other fibers, as well as shells and feathers. Men as well as women traditionally made baskets. Pomo basketry and other crafts have been kept alive by internationally known basket weavers such as Elsie Allen (1899–1990), Mabel MacKay (1907–1993), and Laura Fish Somersol.

Oral literature

Coyote the trickster played an important role in Pomo literature. Coyote brought the Pomo people the Sun and did other favors, but he could also be cruel. Tribal stories tell of Coyote flooding the world to punish people for being cruel to his children. Other tales tell of Coyote bringing food and water to the Pomo during a terrible drought. Many birds are also featured in Pomo stories.


Festivals and ceremonies

Dancing and singing have always been an important part of Pomo ceremonies and trade-feasts. The tradition continues into modern times, and some rancherias have even built dance houses. The Pinoleville Band of Pomo Indians began hosting an annual Big Time Cultural Awareness Gathering in 1994. The Big Time, which is open to the public, gives the Pomo people an opportunity to reunite and participate in traditional songs and dances; it also helps unite other Native tribes who attend.

Gambling was part of many Pomo gatherings, and a skilled gambler was highly honored. Families always welcomed son-in-laws who were good gamblers. Even the Pomo religion sanctioned gaming, so everyone in the tribe participated. Members tried not to win too much or take too many of another’s valuable possessions, because it could cause hard feelings.

Courtship and marriage

Marriages were arranged by parents. Children were not forced to take suitors picked by their parents, but they could not marry someone else without their parents’ approval. Many Pomo couples experimented with a trial period of living together in the woman’s dwelling before the families exchanged gifts and the marriage took place. After marriage the young couple lived for a time at one of the in-laws before settling in the home of the other. Some couples remained with the groom’s or bride’s parents until they had children; then they cut a new door in the home and added a new fire and sleeping area. Young couples did not generally move out on their own; only in the case of a very full house would a new one be constructed.


A woman normally gave birth in her family’s home. Afterwards both sides of the family presented her with gifts, usually lengthy ropes of clamshell beads with up to eight hundred disks each. Among the Eastern Pomo, the father could not leave his home for up to eight days after the birth and was forbidden to hunt, gamble, or dance for a month. Children were given two names, one each chosen by their mother’s brother and their father’s brother. They were often named after deceased relatives.


Special ceremonies were performed for boys and girls when they reached puberty. Eastern Pomo girls were purified in a steaming ceremony, in which they lay on tule mats with hot coals all around. On the fourth night the girl bathed and was given a basket of acorns. She performed the complicated acorn preparation process, and then served an acorn mush to her family.

Throughout their youth boys were given songs to learn and at age twelve were presented with a bow and a fancy beaded hair net. A few boys were chosen each year to begin the long training to become a member of the Kuksu Society (see “Religion”).

Death and funerals

At death, the body lay in the house for four days so that its spirit might leave. Mourning was public and dramatic, with female relatives crying and scratching themselves deeply enough to leave scars. Hair was cut short and gifts were brought. The body was then taken outside and burned, face down and pointing toward the south. The home and its contents were also often burned. Such burning ceremonies were largely stopped by the U.S. government after 1850.

Current tribal issues

Since the 1970s the Pomo have been battling attempts by big businesses to build on sacred grounds. The waters of Clear Lake have been polluted by wastes from old, abandoned mines, from homes and resorts built around it, and from pleasure boats that race on it. Another primary issue for the Pomo is acquiring more land and providing housing for tribal members.

A Pomo Childhood

Basketmaker Elsie Allen (1899–1990), who grew up during the early 1900s, describes this incident from her childhood in Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver :

My mother used to hide me whenever the white people came because we had heard of Native American children who had been kidnapped. My great-grandmother said that when she was young, a number of Native American children were brought down from the north by whites riding on mules. Her aunt fed about 7 or 8 of these small children, who were being carried south to be sold to ranchers. They were so starved, they swallowed their food whole. My people wept when these children were taken away.

Notable people

Elsie Allen (1899–1990), who at age eleven was taken away from her family and sent to boarding school, became a well-known Pomo basketweaver, scholar, educator, cultural preservationist, and writer. She not only kept the art of basket-weaving alive, but created a world-wide interest in it. Her illustrated book Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver, (1972) tells her life story.

Pomo/Wintu/Patwin basketweaver, doctor, and cultural preservationist Mabel McKay (1907–1993) is the subject of a biography by Pomo/Miwok writer and professor Gregory Sarris called Weaving the Dream. (As the title suggests, McKay dreamed the design of her baskets.)

Pomo elder, chief, and tribal historian William Benson (1860–1930) was one of the few Pomo men who made beautiful baskets. He turned to this craft when there was no longer a need for the basketry fish traps that Pomo men usually made.

Allen, Elsie. Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver. Healdsburg, CA: Naturegraph Publishers, 1972.

Barrett, S. A. Ceremonies of the Pomo Indians and Pomo Bear Doctors. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

———. Pomo Myths. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.

Castillo, Edward D. The Pomo. Austin: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Tribes of Native America: Pomo., CA: Blackbirch Press, 2002.

Tiller, Veronica E. Velarde. Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations. Albuquerque, NM: BowArrow Publishing Company, 2005.

Williams, Jack S. The Pomo of California. New York: PowerKids Press, 2003.

Martinez, Antoinette. “Excavation of a Kashaya Pomo Village in Northern California.” Berkeley Archaeology. (Fall 1995).

Poole, William. “Return of the Sinkyone.” Sierra. 81 (November/December 1996): 52–55, 72.

Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians. (accessed on on September 8, 2007).

Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. (accessed on on September 8, 2007).

Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. (accessed on September 8, 2007).

“History.” Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians. (accessed on September 8, 2007).

“Pomo People: Brief History.” Native American Art. (accessed on September 8, 2007).

“The Pomo and the Paiute.” Gold, Greed & Genocide: The Story Of California’s 1849 Gold Rush. (accessed on September 8, 2007).

Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 17 2018


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.

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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.



views updated May 21 2018