Standing outside Oak, the boutique she owns on Main Street in Kelseyville, Caitlin Andrus pointed up at a weathered mural just east of the store.
It depicts a group of Native Americans, looking across the words “Pioneer Plaza,” cordially hailing white settlers.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, friend!,’” said Andrus. “But that’s not really how it went.”
Buried in the history of this “friendly country town,” as Kelseyville has long referred to itself, is an ugly, bloody, inconvenient truth.
This picturesque Lake County community of some 3,500, renowned for its annual Pear Festival, is named for Andrew Kelsey, a pioneer who committed numerous atrocities against indigenous Pomo and Wappo people in the mid-1800s.
Even by the harsh standards of the pioneers, notes Lake County-based historian Kevin Engle, Andrew Kelsey and his brothers, Ben and Sam, stood out for their sadism and rapacity.
A reckoning may be at hand.
Attempts have been made through the years to change Kelseyville’s name. None has succeeded. But the death of George Floyd, killed in police custody two years ago, had the effect of holding a mirror to America’s face, forcing uncomfortable conversations about systemic injustice, and driving change across the nation.
In the year after Floyd’s death, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 160 Confederate symbols were removed from public spaces or renamed -- more than in the previous four years combined. The U.S. Army is in the process of renaming 9 of its bases.
Hoping to ride that wave is Lake County’s Citizens For Healing, a loose band of 20 or so volunteer activists. Formed about a year and a half ago, the group has devoted countless hours to drafting an initiative to appear on the ballot in an upcoming election, probably in 2023. That ballot measure will ask voters in Lake County if they’re in favor of changing the name of Kelseyville.
To that end, the group is hosting a “Change the Name” bash on Sunday, April 24, at the Big Valley Hall in Lakeport. The party will feature potluck fare, presenters at “info tables,” and the music of Lake County’s own Konocti Blues Band.
Mount Konocti is the dormant volcano lording 4,300 feet over the south shore of Clear Lake. It is crowned with two peaks, and its name comes from the Southeastern Pomo, one of 7 distinct tribes around the lake. Konocti translates to “old mountain women,” according to Robert Geary, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake.
Konocti is also the name Citizens for Healing is putting forward to replace Kelseyville – despite a slight problem pointed out by Geary. Kelseyville sits on land that belonged to the Big Valley band of Pomo: “Konocti” was not a word in their language. But when it comes to Konocti as the replacement name, say the Citizens for Healing, they’ve got buy-in from all the tribes around the lake.
Before its measure can appear on the ballot, the group will need to collect around 2,100 signatures from county residents. Last October, with a deadline approaching to qualify their initiative for the 2022 elections, the citizens decided to take a strategic pause.
“We didn’t feel ready,” said group member Lorna Sides. Instead, they plan to submit the measure to Lake County’s registrar of voters in early 2023, to get it on the ballot for that year’s elections.
In the meantime, said Citizens for Healing member Dallas Cook, “We need to reach out, grow our numbers, to find people interested in what we’re doing, and grow our coalition within the community.”
That’s where the party comes in. That April 24 shindig is not a fundraiser, Cook said, so much as it is a “friend-raiser – for awareness-building. The message is, C’mon, let’s talk about this issue. Are we in agreement? If you’re not, come tell us why.”
Plenty of people are happy to do just that.
“When does it end?”
Have the Citizens for Healing “even thought about the costs associated with such a huge undertaking?”
That question comes from Cassie Pivniska, owner of Kelseyville-based Pivniska Real Estate Group.
“Who would cover the costs of changing an entire school system’s names, logos, and uniforms for sports teams?” she continued. “Who would cover the costs to rebrand our town and the businesses who have been here for 30-plus years, with Kelseyville in the name?”