ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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Bloody Island

Pete Richerson and Scott Richerson

From Rodman Slough, drive about one mile further on the Nice Lucerne Cutoff to Highway 20. Turn left, toward the Blue Lakes. Soon, on the left, you will come to Reclamation Road and the Bloody Island Massacre Monument. The monument commemorates the massacre of Indians by the US Army in retaliation for the killing of the settlers Stone and Kelsey. The story follows a familiar Western theme. In the fall of 1847, Stone and Kelsey bought Salvador Vallejo's cattle operation. Following New World Hispanic practices, Vallejo had impressed and trained local Pomo as vaqueros, but Stone and Kelsey's treatment of the Indian community in Big Valley was more high-handed and brutal than Vallejo's. Indian outrage peaked in the fall of 1849 when, in the grip of gold fever, Kelsey forced 50 Indian men to accompany him to the gold fields as laborers. There Kelsey sold to miners the supplies meant to feed the Indians, and only one or two men returned home alive. Stone and Kelsey remained as carelessly brutal as ever, beating, even shooting, men on drunken whims. Women were raped and enslaved. When tribal chief Augustine's wife became the object of such attention, he launched an attack. From within, his wife poured water onto the powder charges of all the white men's firearms, and Indians burst into the house at dawn, killing Kelsey. Stone leaped through a window and an old man soon found him and brained him with a rock.

In the spring of 1850 a US Army company commanded by a Lieutenant Stoneman came to the lake to punish the Indians. Elem Pomo were forced against their wills to furnish guides for the company. The column moved through Big Valley without catching any of Augustine's wary band, but came upon an unknown group of Indians fishing on the island in Robinson Lake. They used boats and a cannon to assault the group. Augustine, who was not present, heard first hand reports that 16 people were killed there. The army also murdered their two Elem guides. The troops then left the Clear Lake area but shot up another village far to the northwest before returning to Sonoma. After these punitive murders, local Indian leaders negotiated with treaty agents and further violent conflict with settlers was minimal, despite the fact that the treaties were never approved

Before European conquest, about 3,000 Indians lived in the drainage basin of Clear Lake, most of whom spoke one of three mutually unintelligible Pomo languages. Small numbers of Wappo and Miwok also lived near the lake. Elem historians say that the Miwok villages near Lower Lake were settled later, under pressure from European Ranchos in the Capay Valley. Each language group was composed of a number of tribelets centered on a major village site. For example, the Southeastern Pomo were divided into three tribelets- the Koi around Anderson Marsh, the Komdot of Buckingham point, and the Elem on peninsula at the eastern end of the Oaks Arm. The peninsula is now called Rattlesnake Island, for the rattlesnakes that Elem people sold to Chinese miners living there for food around the turn of the century. Eating mainly fish, game, wild herbs, tule shoots, grass and wildflower seeds, and mashed acorns, the Indians followed a seasonal lifestyle.

Fear of bears kept the Indians from travelling much into the hills to the east of the lake, but every year treks were made to the coast to trade for shell-money. The Clear Lake Indians had many goods to offer. Having a ready and inexhaustible supply of obsidian, they were able to make many beautiful and useful tools, including arrowheads, knives, ax-heads, scraping tools and ornaments. They also made beads of locally mined magnesite, another form of money. The crowning achievement of local handicraft, however, were the Pomo baskets. Intricately designed and finely woven, these watertight baskets are among the best in the world. Good examples of obsidian tools and baskets can be seen at the Lakeport museum, and arrowheads can still be found on beaches around the lake.

Among the Southeastern Pomo, family groups controlled individual coves, and had rights to fishing, acorn gathering and hunting there. The family system was matrilineal. Newlyweds went to live with the wife's tribe, and even men's political offices were inherited through their mother's families. There was relatively little conflict between tribes and families, and the wealth of the Pomo supported an elaborate ceremonial life. Subsistence was ample, practically every household had items of luxury, and communal institutions were strong.

Students of happiness across cultures find it mainly correlated with measures of the strength of communal institutions, not with measures of material wealth. The Pomo had strong communal institutions and were likely as happy if not happier than the settlers who impoverished them. Some modern European inventions no doubt increase our happiness irrespective of invidious comparisons. We are all happy that modern medicine reduces child mortality below historic levels. But when it comes to the many other ways in which we find happiness, perhaps we have something to learn from Pomo institutions.

The Pomo believed that a "circular path" best preserves balance in and of life, and that responsibility for the environment is an important part of this balance. This belief finds manifestation in current plans for nature preserves built with casino money. The breakup and scattering of a tribe was, Southeastern Pomo believe, not simply due to European malevolence, but is indicative of a deeper upset of human balance with nature. This belief is prophetic; the settlement of Europeans profoundly altered California's ecological systems as well as the lives of its native peoples. In the aftermath of disease and ill-treatment, the Pomo population of Lake County dropped to perhaps 450 people by the turn of the century. Recovery was slow, partly because intermarriage and loss of Indian identity was common. In the 1940s and 50s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, operated a program to terminate the rancheria system and with it any official recognition of the rancheria groups by the Federal Government. Indians were relocated to training centers in cities (many Pomo went to Oakland), and rancheria lands were assigned fee-simple to individuals. By 1955 only about 250 Indians still lived in Lake County.

Only one community, Elem, avoided termination of its rancheria and maintained significant observance of traditional culture. Elem has the only functional ceremonial round house among the Lake Pomo today. The passage of the Indian Self-determination Act in 1975 set the stage for a real recovery of Indian culture in California by setting up a mechanism for tribes to reverse termination. The use of Indian tribal sovereignty as a basis for establishing casinos is today drawing many families back to the rancherias. Of course, gambling does not automatically mean re-establishment of tribes in a social sense. Still, Indian communities are experiencing a revival in numbers and prosperity.

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Upper Cache Creek