Wisps of smoke can be seen rising from the dome-shaped houses that cover the hill at
the south end of Rattlesnake Island near Clearlake Oaks. It will be 500 years before
the English words “Rattlesnake Island” are used to describe this place, and before
there will be a community called Clearlake Oaks. In 1500 AD it is called ‘Elem, and
Kaogoma (Cow-goo-mah) tribe (Southeastern Pomo).
Wokox lived in the village of ‘Elem on the island and is part of the Kaogoma Culture.
He explains that his people and the two other Southeastern Pomo groups live on
islands and fish the lake year-round. Each of these groups has its political and
religious center on an island (‘Kamdot, located on present-day Anderson Island and
‘Koi located on present-day Indian Island). He tells us that his island village
contains 20 or more homes where at least 100 people live. The people on the island
represent the four main extended families in his Tribe. There are two over-flow
villages on the mainland where the rest of the people live (the one closest to ‘Elem
island is called Xuna-dai from the word Xuna, meaning “tule boat” and Dai meaning
“landing”). His Island village also contains a large ceremonial building (dance house)
that can seat the entire village during ceremonies and a smaller sweathouse where
the leaders and many of the village men spend much of the winter.
In the ‘Elem village there is no “single” chief, but a group of four leaders with equal
rank; one from each of the extended families in the community. These leaders
(Balakui) are not wealthy men, but hold their positions of leadership based on family
ties and the blessings of the community. Wokox tells us that these leaders are civil
and ceremonial officials, and spent their time instructing the community on the
proper and honorable way to live. They are called on to settle disputes between
families, plan and officiate ceremonial gatherings, and negotiate agreements with
neighboring tribes. Their families hunt, fish, and gather food for them, relieving the
Balakui of these chores so they can attend to their civic duties.
Although the Island is considered public land and belongs to the community as a
whole, each family owns a tract of land on the mainland. Each of these tracts extends
from the lakeshore to the uplands (incorporating all environmental zones and plant
communities). These private tracts contain the acorn bearing oak trees, manzanita,
willow, tule and other food plants owned by the family. Each person in the village
knows the boundaries of each family’s land tract. Although you can hunt and fish on
anyone’s land, collecting plant resources from someone else’s tract is forbidden
unless permission has been granted.
Although everyone in the village knows how to make stone tools, baskets, nets and
other implements, in each family there are one or more professionals who excel in
their trade: be it hunting, fishing, basket making, arrow making, etc. If a wedding is
to be held and food is needed to feed the guests, a professional hunter or fisherman is
hired to obtain the food and paid in shell-bead money for his or her labors. If
someone is sick, a professional doctor is hired to tend to his or her needs. Payment
for any professional service and most manufactured goods was made with shell-bead
The Kaogoma people of Rattlesnake Island and others around Clear Lake were the
money-makers for Northern California. The Washington clams gathered on the shores
of Bodega Bay were traded inland to Clear Lake where local artisans cut, ground, and
drilled the shell into small disks. Strings of beads were the medium of exchange
throughout the state for at least 5,000 years. In addition, the ‘Elem people
controlled the Borax Lake obsidian flow, one of the richest sources of obsidian in
northern California. Borax Lake obsidian was highly prized throughout the region for
stone tool making. It was used for the manufacture of knives, scrapers, spear and
arrow points. This distinction assured the Kaogoma a prominent place in the
California trade and exchange network.
For 5,000 years, the village of ‘Elem on Rattlesnake Island was the center of
Southeastern Pomo culture.
Notes: Wokox is a real person (a Southeastern Pomo doctor “shaman”) who lived at
Elem and was 5 or 6 years old in 1850 (the time of the Bloody Island Massacre). He
was interviewed by Edward Gifford in 1919 and provided much of the cultural detail
in this article.
Site maintained as a public service by Archaeological Research, PO Box 1353, Lucerne, CA 95458.
|History and Prehistory of Lake County
1928 Clear Lake Pomo Society, University of California Publications in
American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 18, No.2, University of California
Kniffen, Fred B.
1939 Pomo Geography, University of California Publications in American
Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 36, No.6, University of California Press,