The Pomo's Sacred Sonoma



Coyote was the first one to dream, and he dreamed the universe into being. His name was Duwi Nawo, Coyote Spirit, and his second-in-command was the Great Chief Madumda. Coyote may have dreamed humans into existence, or it may have happened this way: one day Coyote created two wooden staffs and planted them into the ground before him. He pronounced one would become a man, and the other would become a woman. Coyote shot one of his arrows at the first staff, and it transformed into a man. The man then took Coyote's bow and arrow and shot its tip into the other staff, turning it into a woman.

"They were called the Red Earth people. Poomo, red earth. Linguists and anthropologists took the word and used it to group together all the peoples of the area who spoke related languages. Pomo," wrote Greg Sarris.

So goes one of the Pomo's legends of creation. Sonoma County, the Pomo's chosen home along with Lake and Mendocino counties, has played host to this people's vast mythology. Its mountains and rivers, trees and coastlines were subjects of taboo, superstition and worship.

Beth Winegarner thanks Beth for allowing us to publish these excerpts from Sacred Sonoma.

 Sacred Sonoma  

Sacred Sonoma - Healdsburg area


Ley lines: an alignment of sacred sites, veins of enormous spiritual power and energy.

Beth writes: "When I read my first book on ley lines in 1995, I had no idea where it would take me. I knew vaguely what a ley line was, and wondered if the place I had called home for 15 years -- a place I had come to consider inherently magical -- was laid out like these old alignments others had found in Britain and mainland Europe.  I began researching and writing things down, and before I knew it I had a book on my hands. I decided, finally, to put it on the Web, and here it is."

Here in Sonoma County discerning the sacred from the mundane is a complicated task. "Does a site have to be thousands of years old, recognized by historical societies, and crumbling into ruin to be considered sacred or holy? Everyone has their own idea of what makes a place special, and usually one's own relationship with a certain place is enough to make it sacred to them. Throughout my research I found that in the places where I felt a particular sort of energy, healing or frightening, constructive or just plain bizarre, other people noticed similar feelings. Even though we are not conditioned to recognize these subtle patterns of energy, we pick up on them. Just as animals and plants are sensitive to the subtle energies of the earth, so are we. That is how I compiled most of the sites for this book -- again and again people would come to me and say, "you have to include this site;" over time, the votes for these places kept accumulating to the point where I knew something more than coincidence was going on."

The North County Region

A stand of trees near the Kayasha Pomo reservation at Stewart's Point.

The Northwest area of Sonoma County was an active one for the Pomo Indians. Many lived where the Kayasha reservation is today, traveling to the coast for salt and fish, and to the Dry Creek valley for sedge with which to make their baskets. Several tribes lived in the area along dry creek where it runs parallel to the northern part of the Russian River, and the two valleys are separated by a little ridge of hills. The principal village here was called Amalako, or "rabbit food." As of 1940, their assembly house was still standing, though it was abandoned once the white people came to the area.

Other villages dotted the land, including the Kataictemi in Healdsburg and the twin tribes of the Makahamo and Makamoteemei in Muskalon (now Cloverdale). The Pomo preferred to live alongside the Russian River, except during the rainy winters, and villages could be quite large; the Makamoteemei settlement extended as far south as Chianti. The group was split into two towns which shared hunting grounds and dam sites, and gathered at Makalimo ("salmon hole") near Sulphur Creek for special dances and ceremonies. People in this area were said to be heavily tattooed. For protection from evil spirits, they burned angelica root (also found in the Dry Creek and Skagg's Springs valleys) or rubbed their bodies with its powder, or with pepper tree leaves. Prayers went to the animal spirits who were the masters of the hunt.


Healdsburg Bridge

One of Healdsburg's Bridges over the Russian River.

One cannot discuss sacred places in Sonoma County without discussing the town of Healdsburg and the regions which surround it, for this area held one of the main Pomo settlements of Sonoma County. According to a dissertation on Pomo sacred sites written by Ann Markell, Healdsburg is littered with sites which were valuable -- and sometimes taboo -- to the native people. In addition to the villages which dotted the banks of the Russian River and the Dry and Mark West Creeks, a rich folklore arose from the Pomo's relationship to the area.

In fact, the places forbidden throughout Pomo lore reveal the most fascinating tales. One tells of a Kale, or "water place," located near a village which was once situated where the Healdsburg plaza stands today; there, a pond was said to cause people to become ill if they went near it. Markell writes, "Although [S.A.] Barrett claimed that the pond was gone in 1908, a recent informant (1964) claimed that the pond was still intact. The only "pond" left in the plaza is now a fountain, but it's unclear whether they are one and the same. The plaza is not the only town center with Pomo history; its cemetery was also built on a former village site, once known as Watakkawi, or "frog pond place."

Other bodies of water were less forbidding. A pond just southeast of town, for instance, was said to be the home of Frog-woman; her voice could be heard in the evening, and she would keep a log on the shore which, if a person stood on it, would carry them safely to an island in the middle of the lake. Despite Frog-woman's benign nature, children were told not to go near this pond. But according to legend, both Frog-woman and her log disappeared once Mexican groups began to settle the area. Apparently, the pond was drained by William Fitch, who settled parts of Healdsburg (and for whom Fitch Mountain is named); the area is now cultivated land.


This fountain in the middle of the Healdsburg Plaza may have been built on the site of a pond the Pomo considered taboo.

The villages themselves had fascinating names, like Wotokkaton, meaning "ashes" or "dirty lake;" Mukakotca Li, meaning "ant village;" "Amatio," meaning "red ground below" and Cawako, meaning "small warriors." Markell found many of the other village names untranslateable.









Lake Sonoma

Lake Sonoma

Lake Sonoma, which was once a valley sacred to the Pomo people.

Before the building of Warm Springs Dam which created Lake Sonoma, the basin was a center of activity for the local Pomo Indians. They may have used the land for up to 4000 years before other settlers came to the region. Petroglyphs and fertility stones or "baby rocks" have been found throughout the upper Dry Creek region. Only one burial site was found, since the Pomo practiced cremation for so long, and make a point of setting up graveyards far away from the villages of the living once their burial practices changed with the coming of the Catholics. However, long after evidence of Pomo settlements in this region had long vanished, the medicine people returned to it regularly to dig sedge with which to make their sacred baskets. It is apparent that this entire region was special to the Pomo, one that sustained them physically and emotionally for hundreds of years.

Gathering sedge was a spiritual exercise, and certain practices and rules had to be followed otherwise the plants were no good for basketweaving. One girl described a typical process her mother went through to collect the sedge. First, she would send prayers to the Great Spirit, touching the grasses and feeling for the 'right' sedge bed from which to pick. Then she would ask the spirits for a good harvest, thank them for their presence, and then begin digging up a few plants. she would pray throughout the digging process, and send more thanks to the spirits once she was finished harvesting her plants. One taboo forbade women, and their families, from digging when they are menstruating. To break this prohibition would "poison" the sedge beds.

Other important plants which grew in the dry creek area included the willow, used for the skeletons of baskets, the medicinal roots of angelica and lomatium, and pepperwood (bay) branches. Angelica and lomatium roots are used, among other things, in tea form to treat colds. Angelica is also used at a woman's first menstruation: four short stalks are tied around the girl's ankle to protect her from evil and misfortune. As with sedge, these plants must only be collected by native doctors, otherwise it is dangerous.

In the early days of Sonoma County, sedge beds were everywhere, including the banks of the Russian River. Once agricultural clearing and gravel mining made much of the land private, the only good, public source of sedge was along Dry Creek. But even that was threatened by white business interests. In his biography about the basketweaver and Dreamer Mabel McKay, Weaving the Dream, Greg Sarris wrote about the trips McKay and her elder, Essie Parrish, would take to dig sedge along the basin of what is now Lake Sonoma: "Essie told [Mabel] about her Dream. 'They're going to build a dam here one day soon. Where we're sitting will be hundreds of feet under water. This last good sedge-picking place will be no more.'" Parrish too was a Dreamer, a prophet, a basketweaver, and her dream was accurate.

The coming of the Dam project was sacrilege for Pomo who had counted on this land, and whose ancestors had dwelled there. Heated exchanges took place between local Native Americans and conservationists, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The latter eventually won, agreeing to relocate the willow and sedge plants so as to allow continued basketmaking. But they missed the point; the land itself was sacred, and its spirit would now be buried underwater, turned into a tourist spot for profit while stopping the flow of energy through the waterways.

When the dam project threatened the continued existence of these sacred plants, the Pomo insisted that they be the ones to replant them in new, safe locations. After all, they were the only ones who knew anything about their cultivation. Violation of the spiritual rules and taboos related to these plants would lead to a failure to find good roots, and could bring physical harm to the person in question. This transplanting began in 1978 with Mabel McKay leading the first round of transplantation. First, she spoke about the importance of the sedge plants to the tribe, and the proper rules for transplantation. The Pomo committee consisted of Mabel McKay, Dr. Elsie Allen, Lucy Smith, Myrtle Hurtado, Laura Somersal, and Joann Dempsey, all Pomo basket weavers.

While the physical transplantation of these plants was somewhat successful, a majority of them died. Basketmakers still exist among the Pomo today, continuing to make use of the limited sedge resources available. In the meantime, folks who come to Lake Sonoma are greeted with information about the Pomo as if they are history, a quaint relic which no longer exists.

Treasured as this region is, the valley which became Lake Sonoma is not without its taboo sites. Skagg's Springs, for instance, was forbidden; likewise, a place on the road to Skagg's Springs frightened a number of passersby -- not just Pomo -- with strange noises. According to Markell, "some people have almost died from hearing them."


Read Sacred Sonoma online.

Text and photographs 2002  Beth Winegarner  All rights reserved.







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