Pomo Native American Tule Reed Canoes

The blog started off when I found this pic on Lynn Catlett’s “You know you are from Mendocino if ……”:

Tule Reed Canoe on Clear Lake (Lake Co, CA.)

Something told me I knew more about a canoe on Clear Lake (in Lake County, CA). But what? A week or so after garnering the photo I was in the weed patch shovelling horse poop when it hit me.

Soon after we came to Fort Bragg in 2000 my sister Karen came to visit. By a collective decision (wife Sarah and the tribe of four kids) a trip to Lakeport was decided upon. It was ghastly hot so the  all but went pedaloing on the Lake. I toddled off to the Museum to see if they had any examples of obsidian arrow heads used by the Pomo Native Americans. And much to my gratification there was a superb collection of arrowheads and spear points – see below:

Pomo native American obsidian arrowheads and spear tips

I was very surprised to see a canoe there. At the time I never knew that the Pomo Native Americans built canoes. The canoe is still there …….

Pomo Native American Tule Reed Canoe in the Lakeport Museum

Pomo Native American Reed Canoe in the Lake Port Museum

Being one who wants to know the ins and outs of everything I learned that the reeds used were Tule reeds. I had heretofore always associated the word “Tule” with fog. Wrong again!

Tule (pronounced too-lee) is a plant that has been a part of California Indian culture for millennia. It is one of the most versatile plants in California, and multiple species grow in different environmental regions. Two major species in California are the common tule and California bulrush.

Bundle of Tule Reeds

Tule is related to papyrus, one of the most famous plants worldwide due to its use by the ancient Egyptians. Early surveyors to California lauded the potential of tule for paper products, due to its similarity to papyrus. The industry never took off, to the benefit of the plant, but those early accounts reveal the richness of the resource two centuries ago. Tule used to thrive all over California. Essentially, as long as there was a waterway, there was tule. Tule can grow in any type of freshwater—along rivers, lakes, and estuaries, both near the coast and inland. Huge tule fields spanned the state. There used to be a large tule field in the center of Santa Barbara, which the Schmuwich Chumash called Kaswa’ (place of the tule). Early photographs from the turn of the twentieth century reveal tule fields in Pomo Native American territory near Clear Lake; community members used those tules to build traditional dwellings. The Pomo tribes say the tule along Clear Lake is not doing very well.

Tule Reeds being cut by a Pomo Natibe American woman at Clear Lake

As a water-loving plant, tule has faced a multitude of threats due to drastic landscape changes over the past two centuries. For example, the former Tulare Lake in Central California, was named for the rows of tule plants that lined its shores. This lake used to be the largest freshwater body of water in California, home to tule elk (also named after the plant, one of the elk’s primary food sources), waterfowl, fish, and mussels. By the 1930s the lake had completely dried up, due to the conversion of land for agriculture and ranching in the Central Valley. The loss of Tulare Lake severely impacted the cultural traditions of the Yokuts peoples, who have lived in that area for thousands of years.

The health of the water also impacts tule. Although tule is mostly used as a building material, it is also a traditional food source. Native California peoples ate the white tuber portion of the root that goes down into the water. Today, the water that tule grows in is often stagnant and polluted.

Tule Reed canoe on the water

Tule Reed Canoe on the bank by Tule Reeds

Modern Tule Reed Canoe