July 13, 2012

Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians of the Sulphur Bank Rancheria


The Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians is the only Southeastern Pomo indian tribe that is a federally recognized tribal government. The Southeastern Pomo Tribes of Lake County, California were a united sovereign fishing and gathering nation that consisted of four main villages. Today, there are roughly 20 Pomo rancherias in northern California.

Official Tribal Name: Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians of the Sulphur Bank Rancheria

Address: 13300 E Highway 20 Suite B,  P. O. Box 989, Clearlake Oaks, CA 95423
Phone:  707-998-2292
Fax:  707-998-2993

Official Website:

Recognition Status: Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:

Pomo is a combination of Northern Pomo words meaning “those who live at red earth hole.”

Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:

Alternate names:

Elem Indian Colony, Sulphur Bank Rancheria

Elem also known as:

  • Rattlesnake Island
  • Elem Indian Colony
  • Sulfur Bank Rancheria
  • towns of Clearlake & Oaks, CA

Cigom also known as:

  • Indian Island
  • town of Clearlake, CA

Koi also known as:

  • Lower Lake, CA

Komdot also known as:

  • Buckingham Island
  • town of Rivera, CA
    Komdot was the traditional Chief’s Village.

 Alternate spellings / Mispellings:

Name in other languages:

Region: California 

State(s) Today: California

Traditional Territory:

About 80,000 arcres around the area now known as Clear Lake, California, was the home area of this tribe. They also ranged over an additional 2 million acres around the lake and along the Pacific Coast. 

Confederacy: Pomo


Reservations: Sulphur Bank Rancheria
Land Area: About 80 acres northwest of Clear Lake, California 
Tribal Headquarters:  Clear Lake Oaks, California
Time Zone:  Pacific

Population at Contact:

In 1770, the first census count was taken and that census listed 8,000 tribe members for all Pomo, collectively. However, in pre-contact times, the population was much greater, some estimates are as high as between 10,000 and 18,000. The size of the Pomo tribes diminished quickly during the 1800s. In 1851, there were around 4,000 members, and only 30 years later the number dropped to 1,450.

Registered Population Today:

Today the Pomo people number just over 4,000, collectively, with about 250 belonging to the Elem Pomo tribe today. About 80 Elem Pomo members live on their reservation.

Tribal Enrollment Requirements:

Genealogy Resources:


Name of Governing Body:  
Number of Council members:  
Dates of Constitutional amendments: 
Number of Executive Officers:  


Language Classification:

There are four Pomoan language branches: western, eastern, southern, and northern Pomo, with seven distinct dialects each spoken by one Pomo tribe. There is no political alliance among the Pomo tribes, they are related only by their language origins.

Language Dialects:

Southeastern Pomo, an 8,000-year-old dialect spoken by a people who once flourished along the shores of Clear Lake (Lake County) was handed down orally and never written, and the language has nearly vanished.

Number of fluent Speakers:

As of 2007, there was only one fluent speaker remaining. 



Bands, Gens, and Clans

Related Tribes:

Traditional Allies:

Traditional Enemies:

Pomos often fought Patwins, Wappos, Wintuns, and Yukis. 

Modern Day Events & Tourism:

Legends / Oral Stories:

Art & Crafts:

Items made by the Pomo included baskets (cooking pots, containers, cradles, hats, mats, games, traps, and boats); fish nets, weirs, spears, and traps; tule mats, moccasins, leggings, boots, and houses; and assorted stone, wood, and bone tools. Feathers and beads were often used for design. Hunting tools included the bow and arrow, spear, club, snares, and traps.

Pomo baskets were of extraordinarily high quality. Contrary to the custom in many tribes, men assisted in making baskets. Best known for weaving watertight baskets made from bullrush (also known as tule or cattails) and willow strands decorated with feathers and beads made from shells. This process requires chewing and holding the fibers with your teeth. Because the water they grow in is now heavily polluted with mercury, this creates a health hazard, and has lead to a huge decline in people who still remember how to make these baskets.

Exchange also occurred on special trade expeditions. Objects of interest might include finished products such as baskets as well as raw materials. The Clear Lake Pomo had salt and traded it for tools, weapons, furs, and shells. All groups used money of baked and polished magnesite as well as strings of clam shell beads. The Pomo could count and add up to 40,000.



Dress was minimal. Such clothing as people wore they made from tule, skins, shredded redwood, or willow bark. Men often went naked. Women wore waist-to-ankle skirts, with a mantle tied around the neck that hung to meet the skirt. Skin blankets provided extra warmth. 


 A number of materials were used for personal decoration, including clamshell beads, magnesite cylinders, abalone shell, and feathers. Bead belts and neck and wrist bands were worn as costume accessories and as signs of wealth. 

Housing and Social Organization:

Along the coast, people built conical houses of redwood bark against a center pole. Inland, the houses were larger pole-framed, tule-thatched circular or elliptical dwellings. Other structures included semi-subterranean singing houses for ceremonies and councils and smaller pit sweat houses.

The Pomo were divided into tribelets, each composed of extended family groups of between 100 and 2,000 people. Generally autonomous, each tribelet had its own recognized territory. One or more hereditary, generally male, minor chiefs headed each extended family group.

All such chiefs in a tribelet formed a council or ruling elite, with one serving as head chief, to advise, welcome visitors, preside over ceremonies, and make speeches on correct behavior. Groups made regular military and trade alliances between themselves and with non-Pomos. A great deal of social control was achieved through a shared set of beliefs. 

The Pomo ranked individuals according to wealth, family background, achievement, and religious affiliation. Most professions, such as chief, shaman, or doctor, required a sponsor and were affiliated with a secret society. The people recognized many different types of doctors. Bear doctors, for instance, who could be male or female, could acquire extraordinary power to move objects, poison, or cure.

The position was purchased from a previous bear doctor and required much training. Names were considered private property.

Boys, who were taught certain songs throughout their childhoods, were presented with a hair net and a bow and arrow around age 12.

For girls, the onset of puberty was a major life event, with confinement to a menstrual hut and various restrictions and instructions.


The Pomo were hunter gatherers who practiced both hunting and fishing, but fish were their primary source of protein. Blue gill fish and bread and other foods made from ground acorns were their primary foods. They also gathered many other roots and berries, and also ate the tule leaves and roots.

 The Pomo mainly ate seven kinds of acorns. They hunted deer, elk, antelope, fowl, and small game. Gathered foods included buckeyes, pepperwood nuts, various greens, roots, bulbs, and berries. Most foods were dried and stored for later use. Coastal groups considered dried seaweed a delicacy. In some communities the good food sources were privately owned.

Clear Lake Pomo were also involved in long distance trading networks. Pomo people traded with the Coast Miwok for clamshells and other shells. These would be used for beads and basket embellishments. Magnesite and obsidian, prevalent in the Lake County area from ancient volcanic activity, were traded in exchange.

The Pomo participated in a vast northern California trade group. Both clamshell beads and magnesite cylinders served as money. People often traded some deliberately overproduced items for goods that were at risk of becoming scarce. One group might throw a trade feast, after which the invited group was supposed to leave a payment. These kinds of arrangements tended to mitigate food scarcities.

Coastal residents crossed to islands on driftwood rafts bound by vegetal fiber. The Clear Lake people used boats of tule bound with split grape leaves.

Poaching (trespass), poisoning, kidnapping or murder of women or children (usually for transgressing property lines), or theft constituted most reasons for warfare. Pomos occasionally formed military alliances among contiguous villages.

Warfare began with ritual preparation, took the form of both surprise attacks and formal battles, and could end after the first casualty or continue all the way to village annihilation. Women and children were sometimes captured and adopted.

Chiefs of the fighting groups arranged a peace settlement, which often included reparations paid to the relatives of those killed. Hunting or gathering rights might be lost or won as a result of a battle.

They made weapons of stone, bone, and wood.

Economy Today:

Pomo country is still relatively poor. People engage in seasonal farm work as well as skilled and unskilled work. Some work with federal agencies, and some continue to hunt and gather their food. 

Religion, Dances & Spiritual Beliefs:

Pomo myths involve stories of creationism that center around a healer spirit named Kukso or Gukso, various spirits that embody the six cardinal directions, and the spirit of the Coyote, which is their central god. The religion the Pomo practice is shamanism in relation to the coyote spirit.

The Kuksu cult was a secret religious society, in which members impersonated a god (kuksu) or gods in order to obtain supernatural power. Members observed ceremonies in colder months to encourage an abundance of wild plant food the following summer.

Dances, related to curing, group welfare, and/or fertility, were held in special earth-covered dance houses and involved the initiation of 10- to 12-year-old boys into shamanistic, ritual, and other professional roles. All initiates constituted an elite secret ceremonial society, which conducted most ceremonies and public affairs.

Secular in nature, and older than the Kuksu cult, the ghost-impersonating ceremony began as an atonement for offenses against the dead but evolved into the initiation of boys into the Ghost Society (adulthood). A very intense and complex ceremony, especially among the Eastern Pomo, it ultimately became subsumed into the Kuksu cult.

The Bole-Maru in turn grew out of the Ghost Dances of the 1870s. The leader was a dreamer, and a doctor, who intuited new rules of ceremonial behavior. Originally a revivalistic movement like the Ghost Dance, this highly structured, four-day dance ceremony incorporated a dualistic worldview and thus helped Indians to step more confidently into a Christian-dominated society.

Other ceremonies included a women’s dance, a celebration of the ripening of various crops, and a spear dance (Southeastern, involving the ritual shooting of boys). Shamans were healing or ceremonial professionals. They warded off illness, which was thought to be caused by ghosts or poisoning, from individuals as well as the community.

Doctors (mostly men) were a type of curing specialist, who specialized in herbalism, singing, or sucking.

Burial Customs:

The dead were cremated after four days of lying in state. Gifts, and occasionally the house, were cremated along with the body. 

Wedding and Marriage Customs:

 Pomos often married into neighboring villages. The two families arranged a marriage, although the couple was always consulted (a girl was not forced into marriage but could not marry against the wishes of her family). Methods of population control included birth control, abortion, sexual restrictions, infanticide, and occasionally geronticide.


Famous Pomo Chiefs and Leaders:


Catastrophic Events:

An outbreak of smallpox in 1837 devastated the Pomo population.
1850 Bloody Island Massacre at Clear Lake.

Tribe History:

Many great tribes lived around Clearlake, one of the largest masses of natural water in an area so beautiful and pristine that many tribes would make a pilgrimage to the area to heal themselves in the rich mineral springs and to fish in the large freshwater lake. Natural geysers, rich minerals, fauna and fish, and abundant game were all found in this area. The tribes around Clearlake were rich in everything.

For thousands of years, the Southeastern Pomo consisting of the Elem, the Cignom, the Koi, and Komdot lived in peace. It was a matriarchal system, which perhaps stopped a lot of warring amongst them, built consensus, and brought about immense prosperity and longevity.

In recent times, having lost control over 2 million acres of pristine land, 50 miles of lake shoreline, their matriarchal system, the language, and their culture, all that remains of the Elem Nation is a population of 250 of which only 80 have chosen to stay on the grounds of the Elem Nation Colony which is about 50 acres.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs calls them the Elem Indian Colony and states that they live on land surrounded by a Superfund site – the Sulfur Bank Rancharia.

They do not eat fish from the lake as it is contaminated with mercury. They drink bottled water even though water is abundant in the area.

Still, many members of this tribe who live on the reservation suffer from cancer and other diseases brought about by coming into contact with contaminants – some so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency has put them on the Superfund List, which includes the most toxic sites in the US.

The Elem Pomo tribe dates its history back to about 6000 B.C., and as it perfected the arts of bluegill fishing, making bread from acorns and weaving watertight baskets with bullrush and willow strands, it came to occupy 80,000 acres around the lake. Pomos also carved highly abstract petroglyphs beginning about 1600.

However, the advent of white settlers in the 1800s brought the usual displacement crises, the most notorious being the 1850 Bloody Island Massacre at Clear Lake – in which 200 Elem Pomo and other Indians were killed by the U.S. Army. The massacre was in retaliation for the slaying of white ranchers Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, who were killed by Pomo braves retaliating for the pair’s enslavement and rape of local Indians.

Before the 1840’s some 3000 Pomo peoples lived in 30 villages around Clear Lake. Life changed dramatically when ranchers like Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey captured and bought hundreds of Pomo, forcing them to work as slaves on a large ranch. Tribal historian William Benson reported later in his diaries: “From severe whippings, four died.

A nephew of an Indian lady who was forced to live with Stone (as his whore) was shot to death by Stone. When a father or mother of a young girl was asked to bring the girl to his house [for sex] by Stone or Kelsey, if this order was not obeyed , he or she would be hung up by the hands and whipped.”

Kelsey also forced Pomo men into the mountains as virtual slaves to help him look for gold. Eventually Shak and Xasis, two Pomo cowboys, took the law into their own hands and executed both settlers, prompting the other Pomos to flee to the north end of the lake and up to the Russian River in Mendocino County.

In May 1850, the United States Army, led by Nathaniel Lyon, arrived to find the former slaves. Unable to find them, they ransacked Pomo villages.

A Pomo oral history says, “The white warriors went across in their long dugouts. The Indians said they would meet them in peace so when the whites landed the Indians went to welcome them … Ge-Wi-Lih said he threw up his hand … but the white man fired and shot him in the arm … An old woman said when they gathered the dead, they found all the little ones were killed by being stabbed and many of the women were also killed by stabbing … this old lady also told about how the whites hung a man on the Emerson Island … and a large fire built under him. And another … was tied to a tree and burnt to death,” records a Pomo history.

The following year, on August 18, 1851, Redick McKee, a federal Indian agent, arrived at Clear Lake, to negotiate a treaty of ‘Peace and Friendship’ with eight chiefs of the Native community, under which the community gave up title to their land in exchange for 10 head of cattle, three stacks of bread and sundry clothing.

In the News:

Further Reading:

The Pomo of Lake County (Images of America: California)
Pomo Indian Basketry (Classics in California Anthropology)
Pomo Indians: Myths And Some Of Their Sacred Meanings
Ceremonies of the Pomo Indians and Pomo Bear Doctors  

US Tribes E to G
About nativelady

Leave a Reply