Pomo woman in traditional regalia in 2015
Total population
1770: 8,000
1851: 3,500–5,000
1910: 777–1,200
1990: 4,900
2010: 10,308
Regions with significant populations
 United States ( California: Mendocino County, Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, Lake County, Colusa County)
Pomoan languages, English
Kuksu, Messiah Cult, traditional Pomo religion

The Pomo are a Native American people of California. Historical Pomo territory in Northern California was large, bordered by the Pacific Coast to the west, extending inland to Clear Lake, and mainly between Cleone and Duncans Point. One small group, the Tceefoka (aka Northeastern Pomo), lived in the vicinity of present-day Stonyford in Colusa County, separated from the core Pomo area by lands inhabited by Yuki and Wintuan speakers.

The name Pomo derives from a conflation of the Pomo words [pʰoːmoː] and [pʰoʔmaʔ].[1] It originally meant "those who live at red earth hole" and was once the name of a village in southern Potter Valley near the present-day community of Pomo, California in Mendocino County.[2] It may have referred to local deposits of the red mineral magnesite, used for red beads, or to the reddish earth and clay, such as hematite, mined in the area.[3] In the Northern Pomo dialect, -pomo or -poma was used as a suffix after the names of places, to mean a subgroup of people of the place.[3][4] By 1877, the use of Pomo had been extended in English to mean the entire people known today as the Pomo.[3]


Map of the historical distribution of the Pomoan languages with neighboring groups indicated

The people called Pomo were originally linked by location, language, and cultural expression. They were not socially or politically linked as a unified group. Instead, they lived in small groups or bands linked by lineage and marriage.


According to some linguistic theories, the Pomo people descend from the Hokan-speaking people[citation needed]. One theory places the ancestral community from which the Pomoan languages and cultures are descended in the Sonoma County, California region[citation needed]. 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[citation needed].

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.[5] Recently, analysis of archaeological evidence has suggested that the indigenous historical economy observed by the Spanish at their arrival in the Pomo lands of central California may have first developed during the Mostin Culture period (8500–6300 BP) in the Clear Lake Basin. This was an economy that was based on women processing acorns by mortar and pestle.[6]

Tolay Lake site

Over 1,000 prehistoric charmstones and numerous arrowheads have been unearthed at Tolay Lake, in southern Sonoma County. These are attributed to both Pomo and Coast Miwok people. As a sacred site, the lake is a ceremonial gathering and healing place.[7][8]

Lake Sonoma sites

A Pomo person in a tule boat, circa 1924.

Both of these Skaggs Phase-sites contained millstones and handstones for grinding seeds. The villages may have been used for hunting or temporary camps. Obsidian was used rarely, and it came from Mount Konocti in present-day Lake County. There were no petroglyphs. The population lived only along major creeks.[9]

"The Dry Creek Phase" lasted from 500 BCE to 1300 CE. During this phase, the indigenous people settled the lands more extensively and permanently. Archaeologists believe a Pomo group took over the lands from the earlier peoples in this phase. They created 14 additional sites in the Warm Springs and Upper Dry Creek areas. Bowl mortars and pestles appeared in this phase, probably used by women to pound acorns (as opposed to the milling stones used for seeds). The sites were more permanent and lifeways "more complex". Decorative beads and ornaments were made in this phase, and half the artifacts were made of obsidian. Steatite or soapstone objects were found, which must have been imported into the region through trade, as the rock does not exist locally. Relatively soft and easy to carve, soapstone was used to make beads, pendants, and mortars. Trade was on a large scale beyond the region. The largest and only substantial steatite mine in California existed on Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of what is now Los Angeles. The existence of steatite in Pomo and Northern California native sites is a strong indicator of the size and complexity of native California trade networks.[10]

The next phase, named the "Smith Phase" after the Pomo consultants, lasted from 1300 CE to the mid-19th century. Researchers mapped 30 sites in this era showing a gradual transition and intensification of trends. The bow and arrow appeared as the main technological advancement. Manufacturing of shell beads, with accompanying production of drills to make holes for stringing and sewing, was important. Drills were found in high numbers. Numerous clamshell beads, a major currency among the Indians of Central California, were also found, indicating a vast trade network.[11]

Post contact

A Pomo Dancer (Kal-si-wa, Rosa Peters) by Grace Hudson

There were an estimated 8,000 to 21,000 Pomo among 70 tribes speaking seven Pomo languages at the time of European contact.[12][13] 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 stole or enslaved many of the southern Pomo from the Santa Rosa Plain to Mission San Rafael, at present-day San Rafael, between 1821 and 1828. Only a few Pomo speakers went to Mission Sonoma, the other Franciscan mission, located on the north side of San Francisco Bay. The Pomo 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 colonized and 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 and Euro-American 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.[11]

The Pomo suffered from the infectious diseases brought by the Euro-American migrants, including cholera and smallpox. They did not have immunity to such diseases and fatalities were high.[14] 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.[15] Mission treatment of Pomo was similar to that of slavery, and many Pomo died due to inhospitable living conditions.

The Russian River Valley was settled in 1850 by the 49ers, and the Lake Sonoma Valley was homesteaded out. The US government forced many Pomo on to reservations so that the European-Americans could homestead the former Pomo lands. Some Pomo took jobs as ranch laborers; others lived in refugee villages.

During this time period, two settlers named Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone enslaved many Pomo people in order to work as cowboys on their ranch.[16][17] They forced the Pomo Indians to work in very intense and unorthodox conditions, and sexually abused the Pomo women. The Pomo men were forced to work in harsh conditions and were not given any respect by the settlers. Exasperated with the violence and oppression of Stone and Kelsey, they rebelled.

The Pomo men set up a sneak attack and killed both Stone and Kelsey.[16][18][19] Because of the deaths of Kelsey and Stone, United States lieutenant J. W. Davidson and captain Nathaniel Lyon sent an army to retaliate against the Pomo people. During the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850, on an island in Clear Lake [16][17] the 1st Dragoons US Cavalry slaughtered between 60 and 400 people, mostly women and children of the Clear Lake Pomo and neighboring tribes.[20]

Members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe retrace a forced 1863 relocation to Covelo, California

Shortly after the massacre, during 1851 and 1852, four reservations for the Pomo were established by the United States government in California. Pomo were also part of the forced relocation known as the "Marches to Round Valley" in 1856, conducted by the U.S. federal government. By using bullwhips and guns, white settlers demanded relocation to reservations of the Pomo Indian. The justification given was that to protect their culture, the Pomo Indians had to be removed from their ancestral land.[18]

Richerson & Richerson stated that before the European conquests there was an estimated 3,000 Pomo Indians that lived at Clear Lake; after all of the death, disease, and killings, there were only about 400 Pomo Indians left.[16]

One ghost town in the Lake Sonoma Valley excavations was identified as Amacha, built for 100 people but hardly used. Elder natives of the region remember their grandfathers hid at Amacha in the mid-1850s, trying to evade the colonizing settlers. They tell that one day soldiers took all the people in the village to government lands and burned the village houses.[21]

From 1891 to 1935, starting with National Thorn, the artist Grace Hudson painted over 600 portraits, mainly of Pomo individuals living near her in the Ukiah area. Her style was sympathetic and poignant, as she portrayed domestic native scenes that would have been fast disappearing in that time.[22]



In 1770 there were about 8,000 Pomo people; in 1851 population was estimated between 3,500 and 5,000; and in 1880 estimated at 1,450.[23] Anthropologist Samuel Barrett estimated a population of 747 in 1908, but that is probably low; fellow anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber reported 1,200 Pomo counted in the 1910 Census.[24] According to the 1930 Census there were 1,143 Pomo, and by the 1990 Census there were 4,766.[25]

According to the 2010 United States Census, there are 10,308 Pomo people in the United States. Of these, 8,578 reside in California.[26]


Main article: Pomoan languages

Pomo, also known as Pomoan or less commonly Kulanapan, is a language family that includes seven distinct and mutually unintelligible languages, including Northern Pomo, Northeastern Pomo, Eastern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, Central Pomo, Southern Pomo, and Kashaya. John Wesley Powell classified the language family as Kulanapan in 1891, using the name first introduced by George Gibbs in 1853. This name for the language family is derived from the name of one Eastern Pomo village on the south shore of Clear Lake.[27] Stephen Powers (1877) was the first to refer to this entire language family with the name "Pomo", and the geographic names that have been used to refer to the seven individual Pomoan languages (e.g. Southeastern Pomo) were introduced by Samuel Barrett (1908).

The Pomoan languages became severely endangered after European-American colonization of their native territory. Contacts with Russians, the Spanish, and Euro-Americans have impacted these languages, and many are no longer spoken due to language shift to English, accelerated by policies such as the 1887 ban on the teaching in Native American languages put into place by John DeWitt Clinton Atkins.[28] There are about twelve Pomo language varieties that are still in use by Pomo people. One, xay tsnu, which is spoken by Elem Pomo, is in the process of revival due to efforts by Clear Lake Pomo Cultural Preservation Foundation.[29][30][citation needed]


Home made of many horizontal layers of straw, creating a long and narrow structure
Pomo house, of wicker-work

The Pomo Indian cultures are several ethnolinguistic groups that make up a single language family in Northern California. Pomo cultures originally encompassed hundreds of independent communities.

Like many other Native groups, the Pomo Indians of Northern California relied upon fishing, hunting, and gathering for their daily food supply. They ate salmon, wild greens, gnats, mushrooms, berries, grasshoppers, rabbits, rats, and squirrels. Acorns were the most important staple in their diet. The division of labor in Pomo Indian communities typically involved gathering and preparation of plant-based foods by women, while men were hunters and fishers.

A Pomo religious dance near Clear Lake painted by Jules Tavernier in 1878
Doctor's Headdress (guk-tsu-shua), Pomo (Native American), 1906–1907, Brooklyn Museum


Main article: Pomo religion

The Pomo people participated in shamanism; one form this took was the Kuksu religion, which 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.[31][32] 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, along with spirits from six cardinal directions, and Coyote as their ancestor and creator god.[33][34] Medicine men dressed up as Kuksu, their interpretation of a healer spirit.

A 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.[35]

Traditional narratives

Main article: Pomo traditional narratives

The record of Pomo myths, legends, tales, and histories is extensive. The body of narratives is classed within the Central California cultural pattern.


Carex roots are used to make baskets, and used to tend fishing traps.[36] They are also used to make torches.[37]

Basket weaving tradition

Pomo baskets made by Pomo Indian women of Northern California are recognized worldwide for their exquisite appearance, range of technique, fineness of weave, and diversity of form and use. While women mostly made baskets for cooking, storing food, and religious ceremonies, Pomo men also made baskets for fishing weirs, bird traps, and baby baskets.

Girl's Coiled Dowry or Puberty Basket (kol-chu or ti-ri-bu-ku), late 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

Making the baskets required great skill and knowledge in collecting and preparing the needed materials. Materials for weaving baskets changed with the seasons and years. The Pomo usually covered a basket completely with the vivid red feathers of the pileated woodpecker until the surface resembled the smoothness of the bird itself. With the feathers, 30-50 to every inch, beads were fastened to the basket's border and hung pendants of polished abalone shell from the basket itself. Pomo women sometimes spent months or years making such gift baskets.

The materials used to make the baskets—including, but not limited to, swamp canes, saguaro cactuses, rye grass, black ash, willow shoots, sedge roots, the bark of redbud, the root of bulrush, and the root of the gray pine—were harvested annually.[38] After being picked, the materials are dried, cleaned, split, soaked, and dyed. Sometimes the materials are also boiled over a fire and set in the sun to dry.

Women traditionally wove Pomo baskets with great care and technique. The three different techniques of Pomo basket weaving are plaiting, coiling, and twining.[39] One drying method was wrapping maiden fern in blue clay and placing underground for several days. This prevented fading in the sun or when cooking mush.

There are many different designs that are woven into the baskets that signify different cultural meanings. For example, the Dau is a pattern woven into a basket by creating a small change in the stitching to create a small opening between two stitches. The Dau is the design that is also called the Spirit Door. This Spirit Door allows good spirits to come and circulate inside of the basket while the good or bad spirits are released.[39]

Pomo basket on display, ca.1900

Although baskets were made for decorating homes and as gifts, they were centrally used in Pomo daily life as well. Basket weaving is considered sacred to the Pomo tribe and baskets were produced for a variety of purposes. Pomo children were cradled in baskets, acorns (a major food staple to the Pomo) were harvested in great conical burden baskets, and food was stored, cooked, and served in baskets—some even being watertight.[39] There were even "baskets" that were made as boats to be pushed by men to carry women across rivers.


A commercial market for authentic baskets developed in the latter part of the 19th century, lasting from about 1876 to the 1930s.[40] Two Pomo people who capitalized on this market were William Ralganal Benson and his wife, Mary Knight Benson and the Bensons may have been the first California Indians who supported themselves solely by crafting and selling their baskets to collectors and museums.[41]

Even though most of their original land was taken over, this was the first turning point for the Pomo people. They had finally escaped the harsh road they were once a part of, and even though they had to settle on poor, isolated land, they finally got to make a stride towards tradition and basket weaving.[18] From 1852 to 1878, many Pomo Indians tried to rekindle their cultures and find peace to what had happened to them. Many people let this time be a learning and spiritual time, where they could have visions and see what the future would have in store. It was a time to build, a time to connect, a time of hope, and a time of change.[19]

Pomo basket (collected in 1905) in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin

The Pomo Indians did not have enough money to buy land. The Pomo men decided to work for ranchers and the woman went back to making baskets. The "white" people loved the baskets, especially the designer, feathered ones, which led to a basketry movement.[18] Finally, in 1878, the Pomo Indians bought their first piece of land in California. Paula Giese noted, "In 1878, a group of Northern Pomo people bought 7 acres in Coyote Valley. In 1880, another Northern Pomo group bought 100 acres along Ackerman Creek (now known as Pinoleville)".[18] In 1881, Yokaya Rancheria was financed by central Pomo people. Once the Pomo Indians had bought the land, it was time to make money.

Baskets were in so much demand at this point, even though they were once used for trade and bartering with other tribes and people, they now became the Pomo people's way to make money and build their newly found empires.[18] Women had preserved Pomo basket weaving traditions, which made a huge change for the Pomo people. The baskets were wanted all over California; it was a piece of art that traders wanted. Grandmothers and daughters taught other Pomo women, who had lost the tradition of basket weaving, how to make the all-powerful baskets.[42][failed verification]

Within this time period in addition to basket weaving, the Pomo also manufactured elaborate jewelry made from abalone and clamshells.[38] Assembled during the winter, during the summer the Pomo would travel from various sites along the coast where they would fish and gather all of their materials needed to create their jewelry. The Pomo Indians would create stunning, beautiful, and intricate forms of jewelry that were worn during celebrations and rituals, and even given as gifts.[39] Both of these traditions of creation and culture have slowly dispersed and have become less common over the history of the tribe but more evident in today's culture.

Basket weaving today

Fully feathered basket curated at the Jesse Peter Multicultural Museum, Santa Rosa College

Pomo basket weaving is still valued and honored today, not only by the Pomo Indians themselves, but also by amateur enthusiasts, buyers for curio dealers, and scientific collectors. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are a federally recognized American Indian tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians. During the past 30 years, the appreciation for American Indian art has been on the rise, and the art has become in demand – specifically Pomo Indian basketry. Dr. Joallyn Archambault, director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History says: "Since the 1880s, when Pomo baskets first became sought after, the Pomo have changed their lifestyles enormously." Pomo today live normal modern lifestyles, but the basket weavers are still heralded and praised within the community for their artistic ability and skill.[43]

One of those basket weavers is Julia F. Parker. She is a master weaver, having woven under Lucy Telles. Her childhood was rough, constantly moving around until boarding school after her parents’ death at 6. Lucy had taught Julia because of her perceived interest in preserving Indian culture and specifically basketry. Julia Parker became cultural demonstrator after Lucy Telles death in 1956. She continued in her studies and later studied Pomo basketry with Pomo master weaver Elsie Allen (1899–1990) at Ukiah and several others. Julia belongs to the Miwok Pomo and Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Many of her baskets are in museums in Yosemite, Mono Lake and other museums; she even presented her baskets to Queen Elizabeth II.[citation needed]

The materials for baskets were sedge root, willow shoots and roots, bulrush or blackroot, redbud shoots, sometimes bracken fern and a variety of colorful bird feathers, abalone and other types of shells, magnesite beads and sometimes glass beads. Redbud shoots, used for the darker reddish colors in basket designs are gathered in October. Good redbud is hard to obtain around Ukiah, so it is usually found at Clear Lake. All these materials are gathered with a thankful heart and the gatherers talk continuously to the plants. They were, after all, living things that were giving themselves for something useful and beautiful. In order to preserve the soil and creek banks, sedge gathering was done with care. The commonly held decision would be leaving behind about half of what was found. Dyeing of the bulrush root takes about three to six months in a concoction of black walnuts, rusty metal and ashes in water.[44]

Today, new Pomo baskets might sell for as much as $1,000, and the more historical ones might sell for more than $10,000.[citation needed] Dealing of these baskets has not always been so lucrative and many have tried to exploit the artists and communities. Dealers and collectors may have exploited the lucrative basket market, but it still paid well enough to provide income to Pomo women where hunting and gathering were no longer feasible and money was needed for survival.[43]

Today you will see rare baskets being sold for the prices mentioned above. Due to the time and preparation necessary to weave these pieces of art; basket weavers today have more requests than they can fulfill, and many customers wait months before receiving orders. The rarity of the baskets and the skill are required in making them in what makes them valuable. The demand is greater than the supply, and collectors facilitate a high demand for these artistically made baskets.

Villages and communities

Federally recognized tribes

A Pomo roundhouse today

The United States acknowledges many groups of native people of the United States as "federally recognized tribes", classifying them as "domestic dependent nations" under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but with some autonomy from their respective states, including California. Many other self-identified Native American groups are not federally recognized. Since the late 20th century, some states have begun to give formal recognition to tribes in varying ways.

The Pomo groups presently recognized by the United States are based in Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties. They include the following tribes:[45]

California Rancheria Termination Acts

Many Pomo were impacted by the California Rancheria Termination Acts and lost lands due to lack of understanding the tax system, along with predation by merchants who took advantage of land-rich but cash-poor tribal members. Along with losing their lands, the tribes lost their status as federally recognized tribes and the ability to access federal clinics that served other federally recognized tribes. In a decision dated July 19, 1983 the United States District Court for the Northern District of California restored the status of 17 California rancherias in Hardwick v. United States.[46]

Historical groups

The Pomo people were traditionally divided into several large groupings, each speaking its own language. While these had no overarching governance structure and villages were politically independent, they had some cultural differences and were recognizable as units to those who lived in them:

The following historical list of Pomo villages and tribes is taken largely from John Wesley Powell, 1891:[27]

Non-Pomo villages and tribes considered "Pomo" in Powell, 1891:

Notable Pomo people

See also


  1. ^ Campbell 1997, p. 379, fn. 68.
  2. ^ Kroeber 1916, pp. 55–56.
  3. ^ a b c McClendon & Oswalt 1978, p. 277.
  4. ^ Barrett 1910, p. 276.
  5. ^ Stewart 1985, pp. 13–15.
  6. ^ White & Fredrickson 2002, pp. 345–351.
  7. ^ Friends of Tolay Lake Park, "Natural and Cultural History".
  8. ^ Sonoma County Regional Parks, "Tolay Lake Regional Park".
  9. ^ a b Stewart 1985, pp. 53–56.
  10. ^ Stewart 1985, pp. 56–59.
  11. ^ a b Stewart 1985, p. 59.
  12. ^ Oswalt 2005, "Demography".
  13. ^ Edwards 2012, "Origins and group affiliations".
  14. ^ Edwards 2012, "History".
  15. ^ Silliman 2004, pp. 60–61.
  16. ^ a b c d Richerson & Richerson 2001.
  17. ^ a b Smith-Ferri 1998.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Giese 1997.
  19. ^ a b Pritzker, "Pomo".
  20. ^ Lake County News, May 12, 2007.
  21. ^ Stewart 1985, pp. 59–60.
  22. ^ Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House, "Grace Carpenter Hudson".
  23. ^ Cook 1976, p. 239.
  24. ^ Kroeber 1925, p. 237.
  25. ^ Edwards 2012, "Population".
  26. ^ 2010 U.S. Census, "American Indian and Alaska Native Summary File".
  27. ^ a b Powell 1891, pp. 87–89.
  28. ^ Atkins 1973.
  29. ^ University of California, Berkeley, "Southeastern Pomo Language Project".
  30. ^ San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 2007.
  31. ^ Kroeber 1907, pp. 327–346.
  32. ^ Kroeber 1925, pp. 364–384.
  33. ^ Barrett 1917, pp. 423–431.
  34. ^ Curtis 1924, pp. 170–171.
  35. ^ Barrett 1917, pp. 398, 440–441.
  36. ^ Merriam 1967, p. 296.
  37. ^ Gifford 1976, pp. 11–12.
  38. ^ a b Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, "Culture".
  39. ^ a b c d Phillips, "The Pomo".
  40. ^ Abel-Vidor, Brovarney & Billy 1996, p. 20.
  41. ^ Luthin 2002, p. 262.
  42. ^ King 1999.
  43. ^ a b Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1992.
  44. ^ Allen 1972, p. 20.
  45. ^ Digital Atlas of California Native Americans.
  46. ^ Hardwick v. United States, No. C-79-1710-SW, slip op. at 2 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 1983)
  47. ^ McCarthy 1986, p. 24.
  48. ^ Goddard 1907, p. 665.
  49. ^ a b c Kroeber 1925, pp. 145, 154.
  50. ^ a b Barrett 1908a, p. 279, fn. 345.
  51. ^ Barrett 1908a, p. 260, fn. 298.
  52. ^ Barrett 1908a, p. 281, fn. 348.
  53. ^ Goddard 1903, pp. 375–376.
  54. ^ Alliance for California Traditional Arts, "Luwana Quitiquit".


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