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Tribes of California by Stephen Powers (1877)


PREFACE

The word “Pomo” (from punt, paum, pom, which signify “earth” in various languages) denotes “earth-people”. Though it is the specific name of only one nation on Russian River, it is equally applicable to all the aborigines of California, since they all believe that their first ancestors were created directly from the soil of their respective present dwelling-places.

There are several ideas which the reader who is acquainted only with Atlantic tribes must divest his mind of, in taking up the study of the California Indians. Among them is the idea of the “Great Spirit”, for these people are realistic and seek to personify everything; also that of the “Happy Hunting Grounds”, for the indolent Californian reared in his balmy clime knows nothing of the fierce joy of the Dakota hunter, but believes in a heaven of Hedonic ease and luxury. The reader must also lay aside the copper-color, the haughty aquiline beak, and the gorgeous, barbaric ornamentation of the person. He must lay aside the gory scalp-lock (for the most part), the torture of the captive at the stake, the red war-paint of terrible import (the Californians used black), the tomahawk, the totem, and the calumet. As the plain and simple “Pomo” is to the more resounding “Algonkin”, so is the California aborigine to his Atlantic cousin.

It is a humble and a lowly race which we approach, one of the lowest on earth; but I am greatly mistaken if the history of their lives does not teach more wholesome and salutary lessons—lessons of barbaric providence, plenty, and contentment, of simple pleasures and enjoyments, and of the capacities of unprogressive savagery to fill out the measure of human happiness, and to mass dense populations—than may be learned from the more romantic story of the Algonkins.

Perhaps it is too much to ask any one-to believe that there are regions of California which supported more Indians than they over will of white men. But if those who honor this book with a perusal shall lay it aside with the conviction that the cause of his extinction does not “lie within the savage himself”, and that the white man does not come to “take the place which the savage has practically vacated”, I shall be content. Civilization is a great deal better than savagery; but in order to demonstrate that fact it is not necessary to assert, as Wood does in his work, that savagery was accommodatingly destroying itself while yet the white man was afar off. Ranker heresy never was uttered, at least so far as the California Indians are concerned. It is not well to seek to shift upon the shoulders of the Almighty (through the savages whom He made) the burden of the responsibility which attaches to the vices of our own race.

Let it not be thought that this book will attempt to gloze or to conceal anything in the character or conduct of the aborigines. While they had fewer vices than our own race, they committed more frequently the blackest crimes. Revenge, treachery, cruelty, assassination—these are the dark sides of their lives; but in this category there was nothing ever perpetrated by the California Indians which has not been matched by acts of individual frontiersmen. As above remarked, the torture of captives was not one of their customs. Infanticide was probably more frequent than among us; and their occasional parricide, done in cold blood, stands perhaps without a parallel.

In order to study their customs I traveled among them the greater part of the summers of 1871 and 1872, and lived many months in sufficient proximity to their villages.

I am indebted to Prof. H. N. Bolander and Mr. R. P. C. Stearns for assistance in the matter of sundry scientific details; and to A. W. Chase, Esq., of the United States Coast Survey, for sketches and photographs.

S. P.

Sheridan, Placer County, California,

August 25, 1874.


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