The Customs of the Pomo Indians

The Pomo have resided in northern California for hundreds of years.

The Pomo are a Native American people who are linked by a common language of the same name. For hundreds of years, the Pomo have resided in California in an area just north of San Francisco. The Pomo are a shamanistic people with a rich culture and complex customs. They are best known for their highly developed skill in the art of basketry. About 5,000 Pomo still reside in northern California today.

1 Society

There was one principal chief chosen from many family chiefs in a Pomo community.

The head of each family group (parents, children and dependent relatives) was a chief. Of these, one was named principal chief. These men were the governing body, charged with the general welfare of the community. The position of family chief passed from father to son or if there was no son, to a brother.

2 Religion

The Pomo believed in the curative powers of shaman.

The Pomo believed that the coyote was the great creator and that, at one time, animals possessed the power of speech. Supernatural forces wielded great power in the Pomo culture, and harsh punishment could be doled out to anyone who broke the rules. The Pomo were a shamanistic people, who believed that shamans, or high priests, possessed magical curative powers. Unique to the Pomo are a special class of shamans called “bear doctors.” According to Pomo legend, these shamans received their power directly from grizzly bears and could take their form in order to carry out surprise attacks on their enemies.

3 Basketry

The Pomo are known for their expertly crafted baskets.

Pomo baskets, made from slender willow shoots, are considered by many to be the finest in the world, and they are still being produced today. There are two types of baskets: twined, which are made by true weaving and are used for gathering and serving food, and coiled, which are often elaborately decorated with beads and feathers and are used for holding valuables and gifts.

4 Women and Children

Pomo babies were not named until the age of 2 or 3.

Midwives assisted women during childbirth, and the baby was washed in hot water, which was then tossed out by someone other than the father or mother. This custom was based on the belief that if one of the parents disposed of the water, rain would result. Babies were not named until they turned 2 or 3 and could recognize their name. At the age of 4 or 5, children's ears were pierced. Until their ears healed, children could be given no hot food, as it was believed that it could cause the ears to decay.

5 Marriage

Upon his marriage, a young man's father would pay the bride's father a dowry of shell money.

A young man who wished to marry had to first ask permission of his father, who then would get consent from the girl’s parents. If the match was approved, the families would gather in the bride’s house, where the groom’s father would give a speech and present the bride’s father with shell money equal to $25 or $50.

6 Death

The entire village would turn out for the funeral of one of its own.

Cremation was customary in the Pomo culture. The deceased was placed on a pyre, and as the body burned, all his clothing and personal items were thrown on the fire. The bereaved cut their hair close to the skull. A mother mourning a child would smear the top of her head with white clay for about one year.