Pomo at Contact

Pomo woman showing her wealth in shell beads

Ka i dano (Ike) making shell beads in Big Valley

1906 dugouts at Elem

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 was called the Elem Village, home to the 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 ‘Elem people live (the one closest to Elem Island is called Xuna-dai from the word Xuna, meaning tule boat and Dai meaning landing). Wokox’ 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 spend 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 money.

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 one of the centers 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.

Gifford, E.W.
1928 Clearlake Pomo Society, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol 18, No. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley

Kniffen, Fred B.
1939 Pomo Geography, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol 36, No. 6, University of California Press, Berkeley