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Central Pomo language

Central Pomo
Native toUnited States
RegionNorthern California
Extinctby 2016[1]
  • Pomoan
    • Western
      • Southern
        • Central Pomo
Language codes
ISO 639-3poo
Pomoan languages map.svg
The seven Pomoan languages with an indication of their pre-contact distribution within California

Central Pomo is a moribund Pomoan language spoken in Northern California. Pre-contact speakers of all the Pomoan languages have been estimated at 8,000 altogether. This estimation was from the American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.

"The Central Pomo language was traditionally spoken from the Russian River southwest of Clear Lake to the Pacific coast. There were settlements along the Russian River (in the southern Ukiah Valley, in Hopland Valley, and further south near the Sonoma County line), in the coastal region (at Manchester, Point Arena, and at the mouth of the Gualala River), and in the region between the two (around Yorkville and in Anderson Valley)."[3]

It has a consonant inventory that is identical to the related Southern Pomo language with the following exceptions:

Central Pomo distinguishes velar /k/, /kʰ/, /kʼ/ from uvular /q/, /qʰ/, /qʼ/. It lacks a non-ejective alveolar affricate (i.e., it does not have /ts/ as a phoneme), and does not have length, in the form of geminate root consonants, as found in Southern Pomo.

As of 2013, a transcription project of Central Pomo materials collected by J.P. Harrington is underway.[4]

Geographic distribution

The Pomo people are scattered into six different geographical areas. There are the Northeastern Pomos, Northern Pomos, Central Pomos, Southern Pomos, Southeastern Pomos, and Eastern Pomos. They mostly surround the area outside of Lake Sonoma which was one of the main resources of the central Pomo people. Timber is also found surrounding the area where the Pomo people reside. Mountains next to the shore are covered for most of the way from Mount Tamalpais, on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay, towards the north with a dense forest of redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. Pseudotsuga taxifolia is significantly abundant in the mountain of the region the Douglas spruce and the redwood belt.[5]

The area of land occupied by the Pomo people is divided: the main area extends from west to east in northern California, from the Californian coast to the main range of the Coast Range mountains. The space from north to south is between the vicinity of Santa Rosa to Sherwood valley. The second area is the smaller of the two, only being from the headwaters of stony creek in Colusa and Glenn counties.[6] Both of these areas are populated by Pomo people, but the latter area is populated by tribes that speak a different dialect of the language. Thus Pomo people occupy all of Russian River Valley except for two areas, the first being between Geyserville and Healdsburg, and the second at the extreme head of Potter valley. To the west of the Pomo population is the Pacific Ocean; to the east the Yukian-Wappo and Wintun people are located; to the north are the Yuki and Athatpascan Kato people; and to the south the Moquelumnan people. The Yuki and Athatpascan Kato people who are located at the northern point are separated from the Pomo people by the watershed between Cahto and Sherwood valleys. Throughout northern California, true Pomo tribes no longer exist. The largest geographical and political divisions are villages and bodies of power surrounding them.


Pomo Indians lived in parts of Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Colusa, and Glenn Counties in California. The territory that the Pomo resided in contains two parts: a main area which extends from west to east (from the coast to the crest of the main range of the Coast Range mountains, and from south to north (Santa Rosa to Sherwood valley on the upper course of Eel River). The Pomo occupied all of the Russian River Valley except two small areas that were occupied by the people of the Yukian stock. In the northern dialect, the term "pomo" means people. There are about seven dialects in the north of the Pomo area under the Pomo names of Kai, Kastel, Kato, and Yusal Pomo.

In appearance, the Pomo resemble the other Indians of northern-central California. The Pomo are short (although they are taller and more powerful than their neighbors Yuki and Athapascan of the north), and typically fat (with the females being fatter). The people also have large faces, and the women tattoo their chin.

The Pomo women are noted for their basketry, which contained varieties of techniques and ranges of patterns that are unrivaled in North America. Their basketry contains fineness of finish and decorations especially with the use of feathers.

The Pomo people are very unwarlike and their culture is similar to the tribes of the Wintun, Maidu, and Yuki.

The Pomo were the most on the southern coast that were not influenced by missions of the Franciscans in the 18th and early 19th centuries. As throughout the greater part of California, true tribes did not really exist in the Pomo people. Their largest political and geographical division is the village and surrounding land. [6]


The Central Pomo dialect group has endured quite a history. The term "Pomo" is used by people who are not a part of the group. They refer to themselves as Bokeya, which was the original tribelet name, or the later name, the Manchester Pomo. The original Bokeya tribe spanned from the Navarro River to the Gualala River. Approximately five principal villages made up this Central Pomo region in which the total area of this region is about 300 square miles. This made this territory the largest compared to the other dialect groups and consisted of a population range of 380 to 1,190 people. The tribe was primarily self-sufficient; they had leaders, occupations, and sources of the basic essentials.[7]

The Bokeya tribe were encountered by different European groups which all had different effects on the tribe. First contacts were brief with minimal direct effects on population. Russian contact was more direct but friendly, whereas Mexican intrusions were much more violent. The Mexican Republic had control of California in 1822, when massacres and slave raids had taken place. This drastically affected the population of the Central Pomo people. American interaction further depleted the population of these people during the California Gold Rush. They used Indians as slave laborers and murdered them for their land. Efforts were created to relocate the Pomo people on reservations where they could learn how to farm, but this eventually failed. Some original Bokeya tried to move back to their native land only to find it occupied by Americans. Most of the Bokeya population was spread out, but a report indicates that there was a population of about 100 Bokeya in the northern part of the transformed native area. With the minimization of the tribe, their culture soon diminished.[7]

The Shanel tribe located in Hopland Valley, northern California speak the Central Pomo dialect. Kroeber estimated a population of about 8000 for the entire Shanel tribe. On a much smaller scale, Powers puts the number at 1500 and Loeb approximates about 900 in one village. As time went on, interactions with people of non-Indian culture diminished the number of Central Pomo speaking people.[8]

Many languages of the original Indian tribes that had inhabited America around the 1800s are beginning to disappear and become extinct. Central Pomo dialect is an example of language extinction. By the encounters and interactions between Central Pomo and different groups of foreigners, integration of culture and language happened over time which caused the number of speakers to decline throughout the past few hundred years.

There are probably about a dozen left who can speak the Central Pomo dialect and who are spread out across different communities. Even among these few, they only speak English to each other and rarely speak the dialect with one another. As Mithun states in her study, most of the speakers rarely see each other, and spoke English to each other when the recorder was off.


Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stop Voiced b d
Voiceless Plain p t k q ʔ
Aspirated t̪ʰ
Ejective t̪ʼ
Affricate Plain t͡s t͡ʃ
Aspirated t͡ʃʰ
Ejective t͡sʼ t͡ʃʼ
Nasal m n
Fricative s ʃ h
Approximant w l j
Front Back
short long short long
Close ɪ ʊ
Close-mid ɔ
Open-mid ɛ
Open ʌ



Central Pomo Language is based on a systematic structure that consists of symbolic cues to relate to certain objects or ideas. Within the Central Pomo language, pronouns consist with full noun phrases. With these full noun phrases, sympathetic pronouns are also used within the language to convey certain thoughts and ideas from the speaker to the listener. Speakers are able to convey these thoughts and ideas without having to use any referential device. The Pomo language follows a highly systematic structure in which allows for speakers to communicate through cognitive and interactive cues. The language heavily relies on the state of the speaker and their understanding of the identification of self.[10]

Pronouns found within Central Pomo also consist of lexical noun phrases in which they can be distinguished from its construction. Within the Pomo language, noun phrases are often used in more than one situation. These noun phrases are able to have more use in certain contexts because the use of them is heavily reliant on the speaker and the understanding of the listener. When used in certain ways and certain contexts, they activate certain cues which the speaker and listener can both understand.[10]

The Pomo language structure consists of three main pairs of markers when dealing with clauses.

hi and hla

in and da

ba and li

Hi and hla, when translated, become "and", "when", or "if", and appear in irrealis constructions where a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker hi, it has the same subject as that of the following clause. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker hla, it has a different subject from that of the following clause.

In and da, when translated, become "while", "when", or "whatever", and appear in realis constructions where a certain situation or action is known to have happened as the speaker is talking. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker in, it has the same subject as that of the following clause. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker da, it has a different subject from that of the following clause.

Ba and li, when translated, become "and then" or "when", and also appear in realis constructions like in and da. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker ba, it has the same subject as that of the following clause. When the first clause of the sentence is followed by the marker li, it has a different subject from that of the following clause.


The Central Pomo strongly participate in the Kuksu religion and follow shamanism. Kuksu often held meaningful dancing ceremonies while dressed in traditional attire, interpretive and elaborate acting, and an annual mourning ceremony to pay respects. They respected the puberty rites of passage and shamanic intervention with the spirit realm, and allowed an all-male society that met in designated dance rooms. The Kuksu is a supernatural being that the Pomo believed would be a medicinal healer. The infamous movement "Messiah Cult" was practiced through the 1900s. The cult believed in wishful prophets. These prophets have earned a great amount of respect and status amongst the Pomo people.


  1. ^ "Pomo, Central". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-05-20.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Central Pomo". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ "Central Pomo". Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  4. ^ "What matters to Lori Laiwa? Reviving her tribal language". UC Davis: Discover What Matters. Archived from the original on 2010-06-11. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  5. ^ Barret, Samuel A. (1908). "The Ethno-geography of the Pomo and neighboring Indians". History of Science and Technology Collection. no.1. v.6: 322.
  6. ^ a b Hodge, Frederick Webb (1906). "Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico". Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. Retrieved 2013-10-23.
  7. ^ a b Theodoratus, D. (Winter 1974). "Cultural and Social Change Among the Coast of Central Pomo". The Journal of California Anthropology. 1 (2): 206–219.
  8. ^ Aginsky, B.W. (April 1939). "Population Control in the Shanel (Pomo) Tribe". American Sociological Review. 4 (2): 209–216. doi:10.2307/2084207. JSTOR 2084207.
  9. ^ "PDF Central Pomo Lesson Plans - CIMCC" (PDF).
  10. ^ a b Mithun, Marianne (July 1990). "Third-Person Reference and the Function of Pronouns in Central Pomo Natural Speech". International Journal of American Linguistics. No. 3. 56 (3): 361–376. doi:10.1086/466163. JSTOR 1265513.

External links