This short film explores the painting Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California (1878) by French-born artist Jules Tavernier (1844 – 1889). In the dramatic scene, Tavernier depicts a ceremonial dance of the Elem Pomo known as mfom Xe, or “people dance,” in an underground roundhouse, Xe-xwan, at Clear Lake, California. Capturing a historical moment, it chronicles an exceptional cultural interaction between California Indians in their homelands and outsiders — settlers and business investors — on November 22, 1875. Among the more than one hundred Pomo community members of all ages taking part in the ceremony are three visitors: Mexican-born Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa, a San Francisco banker and patron of Tavernier who commissioned the painting; his Parisian business partner, Baron Edmond de Rothschild; and French military officer Comte Gabriel Louis de Turenne d’Aynac, who was traveling with Rothschild. Parrott was the new owner and operator of the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company on Elem ancestral lands. In the ensuing years, the mine would cause widespread mercury contamination of the lake, greatly affecting the Elem community.
Narrated by Elem Pomo cultural leader and regalia maker Robert Geary; Dry Creek Pomo scholar Sherrie Smith-Ferri, PhD; and Eastern Pomo artist and curator Meyo Marrufo the film introduces the audience to Clear Lake and the roundhouse; highlights the importance of the landscape and natural materials in Pomo basketry; and presents the environmental and cultural impact of mining and land loss as well as the continuum of Pomo ceremony at the site.