The Pomo


Hannah Berkheimer and Jade Glentzer

There are three main Native American tribes that are indigenous to West County, the Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Wappo. Most of the land belonged to the Pomo, with the Coast Miwok in southern Sonoma County and the Wappo in the east. The Pomo tribe consisted of approximately seven subtribes with distinct languages but similar cultures. While the groups do have commonalities, they are not the same.

Originally, there were seven Pomo languages. Four of these languages have since become extinct. Of the three remaining, the only language that still has more than ten speakers is Kashaya.

 Most Pomos in the northern part of Pomo land were part of the Kuksu Cult, which had a hierarchy of priests that would meet to celebrate the god Kutsu through ceremonies and dances that impersonated god. Both the Kuksu and Jimsonweed cults placed great importance on initiation ceremonies, where children would become adults. The Jimsonweed Cult was more popular in the southern pomo territory. It is similar to  and is named after the hallucinogenic plant that was often used in ceremonies.

Basket making was an important part of all Pomo ceremonial practices, as they were believed to hold spirits in both the Kuksu and Jimsonweed Cults. Feather gift baskets were very important for ceremonial purposes, as they were given at births, marriages and death, and used by Shamans in healing and burying rituals. 

The Pomo tribe’s had a large spiritual belief. All Pomo believed in a creator. Most commonly, it was  believed that the creator was the Coyote. It was widely believed that there was once a time when animals talked and had both human and animal characteristics. They believe in supernatural natural forces in everything, and they could appear when someone broke a rule. 

The Pomo used two types of beads as an equivalent to money. The first type were flat clamshell disks from Bodega bay. The beads were placed on strings and were made so each of the beads width and diameter were exact so the beads could be easily counted. The second type of beads were magnesite beads that turn pink and orange when fired. They were made by the Southeastern Pomo. These were considered more valuable than the clamshell beads and were traded individually.

Pomo people lived in dome-shaped houses, most often made out of reeds but varying depending on the region. Food was also determined by region, with coastal and river-dwelling Pomo surviving mainly off of sea life, and more inland Pomo eating plants, nuts, and game, specifically deer. However, there was a lot of trade between Pomo people and occasionally groups would move, which helped broaden their diets. 

Russian’s exploited a vast majority of Pomos, while some Southern Pomos were forced into Spanish Missions. Russians set up Fort Ross in 1812 and started attacking Pomo villages until eventually they controlled most of the Pomo territory. They would kidnap Pomo women and children to use as hostages and force Pomo men to labor for them, mainly as hunters. Later, the Pomo were exploited by American settlers. The most notorious example is the Bloody Island Massacre where two ranchers, Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey, bought and captured hundreds of Pomo slaves. In 1850, the slaves, Shuk and Xasis, gathered the other slaves and killed Stone and Kelsey. In retaliation, the US Army massacred a village called Badonnapoti, killing around 200 people.

Today there are approximately 5,000 Pomo people living in the Bay Area, many of whom are on the Hopland and Kashia reservations. There are many efforts to keep Pomo culture alive. The Pomo Project is currently raising money for a new mural at Elsie Allen high school that will celebrate Pomo cultures. As another example, recently the Kashia band of Pomo got permission to build an affordable housing project in Windsor. The project will also include tribal headquarters, with offices for the Kashia government and public gallery and community space to showcase Kashia art, history, and culture.