Leaders from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians and CalTrans unveiled a new plaque with the ancient name for Frog Woman Rock, just off of Highway 101 south of Hopland on Friday morning. The site is sacred to the original people of the region, but in the last two hundred years, settlers gave it names that were offensive for a variety of reasons. Sonny Elliott, the Chairman of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, spoke about the importance of the sacred rock’s history before the unveiling.
“There’s a level of respect that comes with these things,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get people to understand that part of it…all these places already had names. They were already called something, throughout history. When the names were given in the last fifty or a hundred, seventy-five years, it’s just a small part of time. Our connection with this place goes thousands and thousands of years back…that name has always been Frog Woman Rock, it’s always been that here, and we want to honor that and make sure that people know that history. The tribes have been here. The tribes aren’t going anywhere.” He added that the tribe is working to create relationships and share some of its history with the wider community as well as CalTrans and the state.
The history of Frog Woman Rock could have been lost, if it weren’t for the late elder Frances Jack, one of the last fluent speakers of Central Pomo and a key figure in restoring traditional practices. Ethnographer and oral historian Vicki Patterson recalled a conversation she had with Jack in the 1980s. Patterson was recording Jack telling the story of Frog Woman and Fox Boy in English and Central Pomo. When she was done, Jack said, “You know, there’s another Frog Woman. I said, oh, really? She said, you know that rock down there? That’s Frog Woman. Frog Woman lives there.” Later, when Patterson was going through some notes by early ethnographer John Hudson at the Grace Hudson Museum, she found the same name for the site in Northern Pomo. “Then I realized, that’s the name. That’s Frog Woman Rock. So anyway, the name is Kawao, which means frog, in Central Pomo, Maatha, which means woman, quabe, rock.”
Patterson was one of the people who successfully petitioned the State of California to change the name back to Frog Woman Rock from a common offensive slur, which it did, in 2011. In 2021, CalTrans and the tribe were in archaeological consultations about repairing a slide across Highway 101 from Frog Woman Rock. Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ramon Billy, who wrote the inscription on the plaque, says Frog Woman is a protector, but she can also be a destroyer. The rock is widely revered.
“Other tribes have visited here, because it’s a sacred site for all our people,” he said, noting that another name incorporates that of an ancient village to the south. As for appropriate behavior around the site, he said, “Just be respectful. Watch your children, because this is a sacred site. Power is unpredictable. You have to be cautious. And I say with children, because there have been a lot of issues in the past — the distant past, that we as Natives, we know about. But we try not to scare the people who come out here. All in all, if you have a respectful heart and a respectful demeanor and intentions, then it’ll work out for you. I hate to say it like that, because it sounds so gloom and doom, but in reality, everything is perilous if you don’t respect it.”
Kirsten Johnson wrote her dissertation on Frog Woman Rock, which was also known briefly as Lovers Leap. The replacement story, about the woman who threw herself from the rock, was a colonial standard. Johnson said she’s done “extensive folkloric study of the phenomenon of the Lovers Leap as a type of Vanishing Indian myth that was attributed to many rocky outcroppings and cliffs throughout the Americas, Canada, and even Australia…the origin, actually, traces back to another story about a Greek poetess, Sappho, who also didn’t throw herself off of a cliff for unrequited love.”
Sometimes in the original versions of the Mediterranean stories, the women became goddesses after they leaped off of cliffs. But in the 1800’s, things took a different turn. Johnson noted that, “The myth changed over time, and ended up being used, in the conquest and the genocide of American Indians, as that image of the Disappearing Indian, as if nothing else happened.”
Billy agreed that the dedication of the plaque, with the original name and figures, is the culmination of a huge amount of history. “We’re pleased that it did occur,” he reflected. “We’re saddened that it occurred this late in the game. But nonetheless, it’s here, and we honor it. It’s in the honoring of our elders, our spiritual being, and the living people that are here. And for the future of our tribe, and our community, Mendocino and beyond. Other people are going to see this when they drive by. They’re going to want to take pictures, want to read it. And we’re hoping that it allows them to get a glimpse of who we are, and how we feel about life and the way we believe. So there it is. Thank you.”