Without a pandemic or a severely hobbled economy, Sonoma County is still a wonderful place to live. Let’s pray that all that wonderfulness soon blooms in full once again. But we cannot go back in time, even if we wanted to, and we know our Sonoma County is being permanently changed in unknown ways, as we stay masked and panicky. Meanwhile, think good thoughts.
For as many as 10,000 years, Indigenous people, known today as Pomos, lived in scattered villages and were semi-nomads, moving encampments to follow the seasons and the natural cycles of seeds, fish, grasses and rains. (Artifacts dating to at least 8,500 years ago have been found near Clear Lake, upper Dry Creek and elsewhere.) Imagine the quietness that must have lasted for days with only bird calls, the wind or rustled leaves.
The Pomos believed that all things including rocks, animals, plants and the river had a soul or spirit. Their tribal shamans followed her or his “waking dreams” as a vision or instruction from the spiritual world. The visions were shared in dance, song and both coming-of-age and death costumed-rituals. The Pomo were pacifists because there was no enemy and never a reason to fight. Land, food and freedom to roam and move about were never threatened.
The Pomos would have managed our “shelter in place” quite well. That’s because as they hunted and gathered for food they took their shelters with them. Sometimes the shelters were lean-tos made from redwood bark and sometimes the shelters were grass-hatched huts. Often, the star-filled sky was their living room roof. Stay-at-home orders means boredom and extra TV time for us. For Pomos it might have meant extra time to devote to the intricate basket weaving they are very famous for.
Our social distancing and work-at-home routines have many of us at wit’s end, sometimes unsure of what day, month or hour it is. This would never be a problem for the Pomos. Daily routines were determined by seasons marked by the changing moons they named “mud,” “Buckeye,” “snow or cold,” “blooming,” and words that meant berries, acorns, harvest and falling leaves.
For all those thousands of years, Sonoma County’s one million acres were very sparsely populated by the Pomos and a few neighboring tribes with other languages. There was no farming or other disturbances to the natural setting, except a few fish traps in streams, felled trees for shelter and wildfires that came with the cycles of droughts, lightening strikes and autumn winds.
The redwoods were already ancient and the streams and Russian River (called Shabakai and Ashokawna by the Pomo) meandered widely across the flat valleys filled with oak stands, Buckeye and native bushes. Oak acorns were the main staple of the Pomo diet. The climate was much like today’s which we call Mediterranean, referencing the influence of our Pacific currents and cycles of fog, mild winters, winter rains and cool summer nights. Everything grows here and the river and streams once teemed with native salmon.
Russian fur traders arrived in 1808 and established a settlement at Fort Ross on the coast. They coexisted with the Pomos, who by that time had dwindled in numbers of about 3,000 to 5,000. With the arrival of European and Mexican colonists, the Pomo population fell into steep decline from diseases brought by the new settlers and from forced displacement from their native lands.
The pandemic of the Pomos was a slow and long drawn out series of smallpox, measles and enslavement and even massacre. The peaceable Pomos were gradually pushed off their lands and moved to federally designated reservations. Much of their ancestral homeland, artifacts and links to their cultural past are now sunken beneath the waters of Lake Sonoma.
The last century of Sonoma County’s Pomos has been a dark one of prejudice, poverty, cultural suppression and broken promises. But for a source of good thoughts about the wonderfulness of Sonoma County, we’d do well to study the first 10,000 years of Pomo culture.