By John Parker
It is a calm, cold fall morning. The sounds of a barking dog and the voices of children echo across the lake. From somewhere, the low-pitched drumming of a stone pestle pounding soft nuts can be heard.
Wisps of smoke are seen rising from dome-shaped houses that cover the south end of Rattlesnake Island (though it will be 500 years before it will have the name “Rattlesnake Island”). In 1500 A.D. it is called ‘Elem and for 5,000 years, this island has been the political center for the Kaogóma (Cow-goo-mah) tribe (Southeastern Pomo).
Standing with us on the shore is Wokox. He lives at the ‘Elem village on the island. As we are visitors, he explains that his people live on and fish the lake year-round. Each tribe in his area has its political and religious center on an island (‘Kamdot, on Anderson Island and ‘Koi on Indian Island).
He says his island village contains 20 homes where most of the ‘Elem people live. These people represent the four extended families in his tribe. There are two overflow villages on the mainland where the rest of the ‘Elem people live. The one closest to ‘Elem Island is called Xuna-dai. His island village also contains a large ceremonial building (dance house) that can seat the entire village and a smaller sweathouse where the leaders and many of the village men spend much of the winter.
Wokox explains that the ‘Elem Tribe has no “single” chief, but four leaders with equal rank — one from each extended family. These leaders (Balakui) are not wealthy, but hold their positions of leadership based on family ties and the general agreement of the whole community.
He tells us these leaders are civil and ceremonial officials, spending their time instructing the community on the honorable way to live. They settle disputes between families, plan and officiate ceremonial gatherings, and negotiate agreements with neighboring tribes. Their families hunt, fish and gather food for them, so they can conduct civic duties.
Though the island belongs to the whole community, each family owns a private tract of land on the mainland. Each tract extends from the lakeshore to the uplands. These tracts contain acorn-bearing oak trees, manzanita, willow, tule and other food plants owned by the family. Each villager knows the boundaries of each family’s tract. Wokox says tribal members can hunt and fish on anyone’s land, but collecting stationary resources from another’s tract is forbidden unless permission has been granted.
Everyone knows how to hunt, fish and make stone tools, baskets, nets and other implements. However, in each extended family there are one or more professionals who excel in these trades. If food is needed to feed guests at a wedding, a professional hunter or fisherman is hired to get the food and paid in shell-bead money. If someone is sick, a professional doctor is hired. Though food resources are traded for other food resources, payment for professional service or manufactured items is usually made with shell-bead money.
The ‘Elem people of Rattlesnake Island and others around Clear Lake were the money-makers for Northern California. 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 money used throughout the state for at least 5,000 years.
In addition to being the money-makers, the Clear Lake people controlled the Borax Lake obsidian flow, one of the richest stone tool material sources in Northern California. These two distinctions ensured that the Clear Lake Pomo had a prominent place in the California trade and exchange network.
An estimated 14,000 years of human experience in the Clear Lake Basin led to the culture described here. For further reading, try “Clear Lake Pomo Society” by Edward Winslow Gifford and “Pomo Geography” by Fred Kniffen.
— For 42 years, Tuleyome supporter and archaeologist John Parker has been studying Lake County’s prehistory. To learn more, go to www.wolfcreekarcheology.com. Tuleyome Tales is a monthly publication of Tuleyome, a conservation organization with offices in Woodland and Napa. For more information, visit www.tuleyome.org.