The Pomo & The Paiute

Pomo Women at Clear Lake.
Credit: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archive, circa 1889-1895

The Pomo peoples of California, whose traditional lands once included what is now the wine-growing regions north of San Francisco, and the Paiute peoples who live near modern Reno on the California-Nevada border, are two examples of Native peoples who have suffered the legacy of the Gold Rush for 150 years.

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Paiute Leader. Credit: Nevada Historical Society, undated.

Mercury and other toxic heavy metals left behind as waste by the miners have poisoned the fish and the Tule reeds in both communities. In November and December 1997 respectively the Unites States Environmental Protection Agency hired the first full time field representatives in these communities to help address these issues, almost a century and a half after the first invasions.

Unfortunately the gold invasions have not ended for these communities. Mining for gold is still a reality at the end of the 20th century, although the mines of today employ cyanide, another toxic chemical.

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, the ransacked Pomo villages.

"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 in his hand ... but the white man fired and shot him in the arm ... she said when they gathered the dead, they found all the little ones were killed by being stabbed an 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.

The Paiute (who call themselves the Numa) suffered a similar fate. Initially many Numa helped the argonauts who were finding it difficult to cross the Sierra Nevada. Captain Truckee (after whom the river is named) of the Numa persuaded his peoples to help the settlers, personally joining the United States troops to fight against Mexico. After Truckee's death, his son and his granddaughter - Chief Winnamucca (after whom the central Nevada town is called) and the Thocmetony (later known as Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins) - negotiated with the soldiers, even going to Washington to lobby the president to allow the Paiute to live in peace.

The situation deteriorated rapidly at the end of the California Gold Rush when silver was discovered in 1859 on the eastern end of Sun Mountain (later called the Comstock Lode) prompting thousands of new miners to settle in Numa territory.

J. Ross Browne, a visitor to the mines, described what he saw when he descended into the new mines: "It is as if a wondrous battle raged, in which the combatants were man and earth, Myriad's of swarthy, bearded, dust-covered men are piercing into the grim old mountains, ripping them open, thrusting murderous holes through their naked bodies; piling up engines to cut out their vital arteries; stamping and crushing up with the infernal machines their disemboweled fragments, and holding fiendish revels amid the chaos of destruction."

Among those profiting from this plunder was a former Missouri lead miner and 49er named George Hearst, founder of Homestake mining. His son, William Randolph Hearst, built the San Francisco Examiner into a major newspaper.

There were numerous conflicts. In 1865 a cavalry captain named Wells accused the Paiute of stealing cattle in Oregon and killing two white miners. The soldiers attacked a Paiute camp at Mud Lake, when the men were away fishing, killing all but one of the women, children and elderly who had stayed behind.

The Numa eventually submitted to government orders to move to the Pyramid Lake reservation. Others were marched to the Malheur reservation in Oregon, and still others who joined the Bannock peoples in 1878 were incarcerated at the Yakima reservation in Washington. The Comstock mines were closed in 1895 after generating 350 million dollars for their owners.

Today, only one group of Pomo still live on Clear Lake although there are several small Rancheria some distance away from the waterfront. This 50-acre property, known as the Elem reservation, was created in the 1970's after a group of Berkeley school children began a newspaper campaign to demand the return of Native American land. The federal government reluctantly provided the community with houses on land reclaimed from mercury waste dumps of the Sulfur Bank mine that shut down in 1957.

In 1979 the community discovered the mercury problem. Jim Brown, a Pomo activist who has led the struggle to demand clean up, says that the suspects that the mercury has affected many in the community. "My dad, who was a miner, died at the age of 59 from cancer with high levels of mercury from eating the fish. As kids we played in the caves left behind by the old miners but we had no idea that they were polluted," he says.

In 1991 the area was declared a Superfund site. "Today we live on the largest lake in California, but we don't have fishing rights despite the fact that 70 percent of our property is on the lakefront. The greatest benefits go to the University of California, Davis, which is conducting research studies on the mercury problems, and to Homestake," he adds.

But Raymond Brown Jr., the new EPA field representative for the Clear Lake Pomo vows that his children will get better protection than he had. "The fish from the lake used to be in our dinners most of the week. The majority of the elderly people had high mercury levels. I have a daughter and I want her to know," he says.

In Paiute country also the mines are now slowly releasing their hidden toxins into the Carson River which supports those who still live on the 4,600-acre reservation of Fallon.

Rose Rodarte, the EPA field representative, says that her community was told a few months ago that it would have to abandon the old traditions. "We used to eat ducks, geese, fish and Tule reeds. We use the Tule to make baskets which involves holding the reeds in our teeth," she says.

And Anita Collins, who runs the Nevada Intertribal Environmental Coalition, says that the problems are mounting throughout the border region. "The old Leviathan mine in California is dumping toxins into tribal lands in Nevada. The tribe is working with the local community to try and get a Superfund clean-up authorized, but the local community is worried that this might frighten away business."

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Relocation Slavery Massacres Treaties Mining Introduction WWW.1849.ORG Index Page New Gold Rush Acid Drainage Mercury Waste Pomo & Paiute The New Gold Rush Rivers Of Acid Mercury Madness Legacy Of Poison The Pomo & The Paiute Forced Relocation Treaties Of Lead Savage Miners Dreams Of White Cousins Before You Start Celebrating