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Sense of Place: Lagunas de Liwantolyom

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012 | Posted by

Lagunas de Liwantolyomi was the name given by Mexican settlers to what is now called Laguna de Santa Rosa. Lagunas, of course, means “lakes.” And that’s exactly what it was, a string of lakes running 14 miles from Cotati to well north of Sebastopol.

In winter, a channel connected the lakes to the Russian River. When the channel dried up in the summer, some of the lakes remained. In 1912, two of them were more than 20 feet deep. People boated on the lakes throughout the year.

Liwantolyomi was the Coast Miwok name for the people living by the lagunas. Like adding an “er” to make “New Yorker,” yomi denotes people from a particular place. The Liwantolyomi, who spoke Southern Pomo, called themselves Konhomtara.

Liwa, which can stand alone, shares the “wa” sound with words meaning the same thing in many other languages, including Spanish and English. Liwa, agua . . . water.

Why? Throw a rock into water and you’ll hear the answer, first the “wa,” then the splash. Given our human fondness for mimic, it’s not surprising to find diverse peoples using similar names for an essential thing.

The Liwantolyomi, which may roughly translate as “People by the water,” lived next to one of the biggest fresh water wetlands in Northern California. Despite two centuries of human impacts — it’s no longer even close to 20 feet deep — “the Laguna” is still considered a hot spot for biological diversity and was recently recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance.” It was, and still is, a rich place to dwell.

Many Liwantolyomi entered the mission system. When that was secularized in 1834, some returned home, only to have their lagunas soon claimed by Mexican and American settlers. But many managed to adapt and survive, and their descendants still live nearby.

Arthur Dawson is a Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist. Reach him at baseline@vom.com.


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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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