Recently we were fortunate to visit a wonderful exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco featuring the work of 19th century artist Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo tribe from Lake County. It was centered around a remarkable painting by this French artist titled Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California.
The painting, completed in 1878, depicts a cultural interaction on November 22, 1875, between Elem tribe in their Lake County homeland and outsiders associated with the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company, who are portrayed standing in the roundhouse watching the dance.
Since acquiring our Dancing Crow vineyard near the shores of Clear Lake, we have become increasingly interested in the history, often tragic, of the region’s indigenous peoples and their living legacy. The abundant and diverse flora and fauna in and around the lake created a hospitable environment and the powerful elemental presence of the area, dominated by treeless Mt Konocti’s twin peaks, must have made this a remarkable place to live before the arrival of European settlers. Four different tribes inhabited the region; Eastern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, the Wappo, and the Lake Miwok. Each group spoke a different language. The Elem homelands are on the eastern shore directly across the lake from Dancing Crow.
Among the gifts of the lake and its surrounds were many plants, including tule reeds, that provided materials for the extraordinary baskets, some big enough for a person to climb into, that the area is still famous for. Even canoes made of reeds were to be seen on the waters of the lake in earlier times.
The Tavernier painting was commissioned by Tiburcio Parrott, one of San Francisco’s leading bankers, as a gift for his Parisian business partner, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Tiburcio is also famous in the Napa Valley as the builder of the winery now known as Spring Mountain, originally Miravalle, and later as the setting of the TV show Falconcrest. It was designed by the same architect as the Niebaum mansion at the Coppola winery (formerly Inglenook) and the Rhine House at Beringer in St Helena.
The painting celebrates the rich vitality of Elem Pomo culture, while also exposing the threat posed by White settlers, including Parrott, who was then operating the toxic mercury mine on the community’s ancestral homelands. In 1990 the mine was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency and it continues to negatively impact the land and the lives of the sovereign Elem people.
While the deleterious effects of quicksilver mining, an adjunct of the gold rush, are still present, so are the Elem Pomo. Indeed, a contemporary tribal leader tells us in a video in the exhibit and online (see link below) that the roundhouse portrayed in the painting still stands, its design symbolizing a protective basket, and the dances are still being danced.
You can learn more about the exhibit HERE – https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/jules-tavernier