Before he became the high-powered chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, leading the effort to regain federal recognition for his tribe and build an $850 million casino to provide for its members, Greg Sarris led a far different life. He was an academic, fiction writer, screenwriter and avowed “egghead” whose world was circumscribed by the written word.
He laments that people have forgotten that essential side of him.
“I get so tired of people coming up to me and asking me about the casino,” he said recently from an upper floor conference room in the tribe’s Rohnert Park offices. “I’d like for people to come up and ask me about my books.”
In fact, they are starting to do that since the recent publication of his new book, “How a Mountain was Made,” (Heyday, 2017) a fanciful series of tales of anthropomorphic animals, birds, insects and elements, who inhabit Sonoma Mountain and whose exploits, lessons and fates together tell the story of the mountain. And, in the tradition of ancient allegories, they also tell a great deal about human nature.
Much has changed since “Grand Avenue,” Sarris’ searing collection of short stories weaving the history of five generations of Pomo Indians with the lives of other ethnic people struggling through life together on one potholed street in Santa Rosa. It was published to high literary praise in 1994 and later adapted into an HBO miniseries co-produced by Robert Redford. Sarris went on to write more stories and books, including the novel “Watermelon Nights” and a biography of the renowned Pomo basketweaver Mabel McKay. But the all-consuming and often controversial tribal work took the university English professor on a sharp detour from publishing into unfamiliar territory.
“I had never been in a casino in my life,” he said of his prior life. “I have a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford. What did I know? I knew nothing. But I wanted to help my dad’s people get their rights back after being illegally terminated.”
Casino money changes lives
His work with the tribe continues. He talks exuberantly about the programs supported by the millions of dollars flooding in from the casino and new luxury resort hotel that he says are having a big impact.
“All of our kids can go to college and we pay the tuition,” he said. “If they are going full-time — this is going to be voted on now — we will pay for their housing. In 10 years we’ve turned around an 80 percent dropout rate by 9th grade to an 80 percent graduation rate from high school. We have a tribal aid to needy families here that doesn’t just serve folks in our tribe but serves all American Indians in Marin and Sonoma counties. We have over 600 American Indian youth that are using everything from our aid to families programs through our after school programs to our GED programs to our college prep programs. Those things are life changing.”
In the years leading up to the casino opening Sarris showed a tougher side and was a lightning rod for critics fearful that the casino would lead to crushing traffic, crime and environmental problems.
He attributes at least some of the vitriol to the fact that he stepped out of his socially approved place.
Beset by dual stereotypes
“I’ve sort of been the victim of two American Indian stereotypes,” said the writer.“We’re loved when we’re the fallen nature god and we do art and weave baskets and write books and talk about how horrible our experiences are or aren’t. Then we’re the fallen nature god as long as we’re defeated. Once it’s a question of power and territory, we’re instantly wagon-burners again.”
Sarris was adopted as an infant and raised by white parents George and Mary Sarris, in Santa Rosa. It was only as a young man that he learned the identity of his biological parents — his mother a white, wealthy teenager who died of a bad blood transfusion after giving birth to him; and his father, who was half-Filipino, half American Indian, who died an alcoholic just six months before Sarris discovered he was his father. His adoptive mother and three siblings are deceased. But he has reconnected with and become fully embraced by his birth father’s extended family, including cousins, some of whom work for the tribe. Both of his mothers are buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Santa Rosa, where he visits them both.
His earlier storms seem to have subsided and now Sarris, who continues to teach at Sonoma State University, is almost buoyantly happy to be back to his literary roots.
“As Will [Shakespeare] says — here’s the literature professor quoting, ‘All’s well that ends well.’”
Three new works ready
Sarris, 66, speaks in a voice tinged more with weariness and appeal than resentment. “I’ve done a lot of articles and stories in the meantime. But this is the first one out,” he said. “And I have three more ready to go.”
They include another collection of short stories, a book of essays and a novella about a street kid who becomes involved in a robbery and hides on Sonoma Mountain, unaware of his Indian and Mexican heritage.
“It’s about what he learns up there,” Sarris said, “until he turns himself in.”
His new book, published by Berkeley’s Heyday, an independent nonprofit publisher that focuses on California’s unique culture and landscape, is a compilation of 16 stories that he first published in the tribal newsletter. It is not simply an anthology. The stories can stand alone with a lesson. But when strung together, like the abalone pendants and clamshell disc beads favored by the Miwoks who went to the mountain, they tell a bigger narrative.
The stories carry a strong sense of place with familiar flora and fauna and geographical features, from the spring lupines and poppies that blanket the mountain to the headwaters of Copeland Creek.
The stories are told by the ever-quarreling Crow Sisters, Question Woman and Answer Woman, who hang out on a fence on Gravity Hill, that odd spot on Lichau Road east of Rohnert Park where cars, balls and other round objects appear to roll uphill in optical illusion.
“Stories are like invisible seeds,” Answer Woman tells her questioning twin. “They live in the very air we breathe. They are around us at all times. When you ask me a question, it is like one of the seeds has been watered and a flower grows, one of the everlasting spirits, and it talks to me … the seed doesn’t sprout and grow, without your question.”
The book, which was recently given the Editors Award by the Sonoma County Historical Society, is filled with characters wise and foolish, animals who are all too human, from Crow, Skunk and Buzzard to Centipede, Skunk, Eagle and Potato Bug. The elements and features of the landscape like Sun and Oak also are animated.
In American Indian lore, the animals used to be people. Over all was Coyote, the creator who also was a trickster.
“He was very bright but he did very foolish things. It’s very different from the western creator who was all knowing,” Sarris said.
Through the big picture windows in his conference room he can look to the east toward Sonoma Mountain, where he has lived for some 12 years on three acres on the western flank.
A snake named Matilda
From his home on the mountain he communes with the wildlife that populate his tales. The buzzards and their fat babies and the rattlesnakes, one he dubbed Matilda who he would greet in the morning and claims to have petted as she sunned herself. That all ended when she found a mate who wasn’t so friendly.
“I’m constantly reminded I don’t own the place,” he grins. “I’ll be sitting in my window up where I write and do my business and I’ll be looking out to the front gate. There’s a male bobcat and he’ll go up to that stone wall, look at me in the window and turn around and pee on the wall and then just, all cocky, walk off. It’s amazing when you get up here and see life and are reminded of the sentient creatures who are smarter. Certainly not us.”
From page to stage
A few of the stories that eventually became “How a Mountain Was Made” have already been performed for children by Word for Word, a Bay Area theatrical ensemble that interprets stories. It was the Word for Word that first sought out Sarris to write a children’s story for the stage.
One was “How the Water Bug Walks Away from Copeland Creek,” about how the foolish insect dammed the creek, stole the water and paid a price, a story with a message that reverberates today.
Native American stories aren’t like western myths built around a hero, said Sarris, who has taught for years at Sonoma State University. They are lessons in which there are consequences for greed and going rogue.
He is thrilled that some 35 American Indian kids from Marin and Sonoma counties who participate in the Graton Rancheria’s educational programs are writing papers from the book, which they will read onstage at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley April 28 and 29.
“All these opportunities that kids who have had advantages have always had, our kids are now getting to do,” he said. “And they’re having the confidence to speak in a world outside their own.”
Sarris is hoping the book will leave an imprint on young audiences, whether they read the stories, hear them told or see them acted out.
“I hope kids will get the message that we are all beautiful, we are all special and the minute we think we’re better than, or separate from, or want to exploit somebody, or disrespect somebody, karma will happen. “We’re living in a day and age when we’re seeing, small scale and large scale, what happens when you break away. We’re going to need young people with a deep ethic of place and land if we’re ever going to survive. I hope this book is a ripple in that water, that sea of well-being.”