The Pomo

The Pomo people are a linguistic branch of Native American people of Northern California. Their historic territory was on the Pacific Coast between Cleone and Duncans Point, and inland to Clear Lake. Two middens on the Headlands portion of the Fort Bragg Botanical Gardens attest to their local presence. The people called Pomo were originally linked by location, language, and other elements of culture. They were not socially or politically linked as a large unified “tribe.” Instead, they lived in small groups (“bands”), linked by geography, lineage and marriage, and relied upon fishing, hunting and gathering for their food. They were few in number – 8,000 being the estimate of the highest number and that was in the late 1700’s. Currently there are thought to be around 4,500 Pomo.

Small tribes or family groups of Pomo Indians were clustered from the Noyo River in Fort Bragg to south of Mendocino. Their territory was divided into Northern, Central, Southern and Southwestern Pomos. At the mouth of the Noyo River there was a small Pomo Indian Village called “Kadiu” in Pomo. The Pomo called the Noyo “Ol-hepech-kem” which means “tree foggy”.

The Coast Yuki Indians lived in an area from the Noyo north to Ten Mile River and further north. The Pomo and the Coast Yuki were friendly with all of the neighboring tribes, the Huchnom inland from the coast, the Cahto, who were north and east of the Coast Yuki and more inland; and the Sinkyone, who were around the north and west of the Sinkyone range of hills. The sketch map left shows the distribution.

Pomo shelter
Pomo shelter

The Pomo were a peaceful people. Their small family groups or bands were well fed and adapted to the temperate climate. Their dress was simple. Women wore a fringed skirt or apron made of buckskin and if the weather demanded it a deer cape or blanket over their shoulders. Young men wrapped a fur around their hips and the old men were generally naked. In cold weather a deerskin served as a blanket.

For shelter the somewhat nomadic Pomo made Wikiups Though the Pomo Indians were migratory, they often stayed for extended periods wherever they dwelled. Here they would build elliptical shelters from indigenous materials that were in abundance, such as redwood branches and brushes and mud over a rough frame. You can see examples in the old photos, right and below.

For food the Pomo speared salmon with two-pronged harpoons as the salmon went upstream to spawn. They would catch salmon heading out to sea with a scoop net. Surf fish or smelt were netted in the receding ocean surf. Eels were caught on a bone gaff at night. Snares were set for deer and elk. Acorns, a staple of the Pomo, were not plentiful near the Noyo but there were edible seeds. They also gathered and ate wild greens, gnats, sap of the white pine, mushrooms, grasshoppers, rabbits, rats, squirrels. The women were the gatherers and the men the hunters and fishers.

Deer, elk, bear and birds furnished bones, hides and meat as well as ornaments of teeth, claws and feathers for clothing and tools. The pomo were makers of baskets of every size and shape for myriad uses. Their baskets beauty and craftsmanship make them highly prized today – see pictures below. The baskets designed for holding water were so tightly woven that their very large ones were used as boats, pushed by men, to carry women across rivers.

According to archeologists who have studied the layers of shells mounds left by the Indians, very little changed in the Indians food supply, way of living, their tools or migratory habits for at least 3,000 years before the white men came. The Pomo had a religion, a spoken language and lived in small bands governed by a chief. They respected the land for the existence that it gave them and took no more from it, killed no more animals than they needed to live.

A small, but excellent exhibit of their basket weaving skills may be found in the Mendocino County Museum in Willits.Click the photo to enlarge

Pomo Indian Basket
Pomo Indian Basket
Pomo Indian Basket
Pomo Indian Basket
Pomo Indian Basket
Pomo Indian Basket

The Lake County Museum in Lakeport contains an excellent collection Pomo artifacts including a canoe made of grass. Nearly 12,000 years ago, the Xa-Ben-Na-Po Band of Pomo Indians—whose descendants still live here in the Lakeport area today—called Lake County home, as well as Wintun, Wappo, and Lake Miwok Indians. Thousands of stone tools and more than 300 superb examples of Pomo basketry have been acquired by the museum since the 1930s. The main gallery of the museum showcases many artifacts and displays of Pomo culture.

The Grace Hudson Museum collections in Ukiah, have more than 30,000 inter-related objects, with significant holdings of Pomo Indian artifacts (particularly basketry) ethnographic field notes, unpublished manuscripts, historic photographs and the world’s largest collection of Grace Hudson paintings. Grace Carpenter Hudson, daughter of Northern California pioneers was one of the West’s most accomplished painters of Native Americans. Grace Hudson’s story encompasses the westward movement, the conflict between Native Americans and white settlers, and the culture of the Pomo Indians of Northern California. Grace’s more than 650 oil portraits of her Pomo Indian neighbors provide a unique contribution to Western art and one that will never be equaled. Her stunning and realistic portrayal of Pomo children became her passion, caught the eye of the public, and made her a national celebrity by the age of thirty. For more than forty years, Grace and her husband, Dr. John Hudson, a physician and ethnographer, dedicated their lives to the study and preservation of the Pomo Indian culture.

The Clarke Museum is in downtown Eureka. It is located in an old bank and the exhibits provide a fascinating insight to the early 1900’s in and around Eureka. Of particular interest is a superb collection of baskets woven mostly by neighbors of the Pomo and some by the Pomo.

There are many books about the Pomo. Of the ones we have read there are three which gave us great insight into their lives. The first, “An Everyday History of Somewhere” by Ray Raphael, (ISBN 1-881102-25-4, published in 1974) explains how the Pomo saw their world in which they lived in peace with the earth taking only what they needed to live. The Pomo had a holistic view of life and this book makes one feel that maybe their life was a lot better than ours.

Property of Club member Tony Phillips

Pomo Indian Basketry by Samuel A, Barrett

The second book, “Pomo Indian Basketry” by Samuel A. Barrett ISBN 0-936127-07-4, published in 1958) provides all the information one would ever want to know about Pomo Basketry. It is acknowledged to be the most complete and detailed study of a single Native American basketry tradition.

Property of Club Member Tony Phillips

The third book is this one:

“Pomo Indians of California and Their Neighbors” by Vinson Brown and Douglas Andrews (ISBN 911010-30-9 Published in 1969)

A small but excellent primer on the Pomo Indians. The book explains that the Pomo society had some complex elements, including an elaborate money and counting system with the money itself being manufactured with exquisite care. The authors state that the Pomo produced probably the finest basket work ever produced by man. The book also details the complicated dance costumes the Pomo wore on ceremonial occasions.

Property of Club Member Tony Phillips

Mother to Daughter by Lenette Virginia Laiwa

From Mother to Daughter by Lenette Virginia Laiwa Published by the Mendocino County Museum

An excellent primer on Pomo basket weaving.

Property of Club Member Tony Phillips

"Fine Art of California Indian Basketry" by Brian Bibby

The “Fine Art of California Indian Basketry” by Brian Bibby
(ISBN 0-930588-87-8 Published in 1998)

Property of Club Member Tony Phillips

Grace Hudson was the famous painter of the Pomo at the turn of the 20th century. Grace’s husband was an anthropologist and studied the Pomo for a Chicago museum. Among the many artifacts that he collected were samples of Pomo baskets. A section of the Grace Hudson museum is devoted to these Pomo baskets. The baskets themselves are unbelievable in their artistry and beauty. Not only is the display attractive the exhibits were accompanied by a superb narrative detailing the immense skill required in collecting and preparing the materials used in the basket creation and the process by which the different types of baskets were made. Believe me you don’t just pick up a bundle of sticks and start weaving.

Whilst talking with the gift shop volunteer she suggested the book whose cover is shown below. The book contains beautiful pictures of all types of Pomo and other Californian Indian baskets. California Indian baskets are considered by many to be among the world’s most beautiful, sophisticated, and cherished art objects. This full-color book brings together 62 of the finest baskets ever created, each from museums and private collections all over the United States, including the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

Baskets of everyday use, such as cooking baskets and seed beaters, exhibit an astoundingly sophisticated level of design, while specially made gift baskets adorned with bird feathers and beads are amazing. Some of the baskets are over 150 years old, while others were made within the last few years.

Color photographs of each basket are accompanied by insightful commentary not only from art historians and knowledgeable academic scholars, but also from prominent native weavers and California Indian artists in other media. Their eye for native aesthetics shows us how to look at the baskets in a new and different way.

Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County

Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California
by V.K. Chestnut

Property of Club Member Tony Phillips

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and this one’s unprepossessing cover certainly belies the quality of its contents. The book is a reprint. “Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California” by V.K. Chestnut was first published by the United States Department of Agriculture Division of Botany in 1902. The book is an encyclopedia devoted to the knowledge the Pomo had of the plants they used and gathered for food. Until reprinted in 1974 it had long been out of print but much sought after by herbalists. Having read through it I can understand why. This book proves beyond doubt that the Pomo were totally intimate with nature and its healthy bounty.