Call Greg Sarris an anomaly, or maybe call him emblematic of the cultural crosscurrents of our age. Raised in a white, middle class family in Santa Rosa, California and a Stanford Ph.D., he’s the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the author of two acclaimed works of fiction about Native Americans: Grand Avenue and Watermelon Nights. Grand Avenue was adapted for an HBO miniseries that Sarris co-produced with Robert Redford and that was filmed in Santa Rosa with real Indians. No less significant is the fact that he co-authored SB 5528 that President Bill Clinton signed into law in December 2000. That legislation created The Graton Rancheria, Sarris’s own tribe. Now in his thirteenth elected term as the chairman, he’s forged — and continues to forge — an Indian tribe that’s a coherent economic and political powerhouse in northern California.
In all of North America, there’s probably no Indian quite like him, and, while he has never claimed to speak for all Indians, he expresses a distinct Indian point of view about the relationships between human beings and the earth itself. Moreover, there’s something fearless about him, something of the warrior. Given his identity and his expertise, it’s not surprising that he was the opening speaker at the Geography of Hope Conference that took place in Point Reyes, March 17-19, 2017. It was the sixth Geography of Hope conference hosted by Black Mountain Circle, a non-profit that was founded by Kate Levinson and her husband, Steve Costa, who for many years owned and operated Point Reyes Books, which served as a cultural hub for the whole community. The store goes on, though they’re no longer the proprietors.
This year’s theme—“Ancestors & the Land: Our Past, Present & Future”—provided a perfect venue for Sarris, whose ancestors take him to many lands. Stay tuned for more about him. But first an introduction to some of the key presenters at the conference, including Nikky Finney, Lyla June Johnston, Winona LaDuke, Llarion Merculieff, and Lauret Savoy. Standing Rock cast a long shadow on all of them and gave this year’s gathering a special urgency.
Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe, gave the keynote address, though at the conference she alone didn’t talk about her immediate ancestors. Her mother was Jewish, her father a real Indian who played Indians in the movies. In 1996 and in 2000, LaDuke ran as the Green Party candidate for Vice President of the U.S. on a ticket headed by Ralph Nader. I voted for her. She and Sarris were probably the best known of the presenters at a conference that has for years brought together activists, writers and intellectuals, energized crowds and sent one and all home inspired. I’ve been three times.
This year, the white guys who spoke from the stage seemed to feel ashamed or guilty or uncomfortable about being white guys. The Indian women and the women of color projected a sense of comfort, confidence and calm, even when they talked about difficult or painful subjects like racism. Moreover, contradiction and paradox came to the women naturally and organically. Part of their strength derived from their ability to speak their own Indian languages as well as English. Then, too, the women presenters seemed to be in their bodies, while the white guys were largely in their heads. Of the 16 presenters only three were white males. Out-numbered and outflanked, they made valiant attempts to relate to the theme of ancestors & the land.
LaDuke told stories about seeds, sturgeon, pipelines and Standing Rock. “Be ready and steady where you are,” she told the packed crowd in the West Marin School Gymnasium. “Be a patriot to the land, not to the country.” Lauret Savoy, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, traced her ancestors back to Europe, Africa and the Americas and noted paradoxically that, “to remember we must forget.” Lyla June Johnston, at 27 the youngest of the presenters, and a recent Stanford graduate, talked about her Navajo and Cheyenne ancestors and her experience as a drug dealer on campus, about which she was not proud.
“We have to remember who we are,” she said. “Whether we’re European American, African American or American Indian.” Johnston added, “Dig deep and see the beauty of who you are.” She won the hearts of the audience when she said, “I am going to love the people who are oppressing me. Forgiveness allows us to fight more effectively for what we believe in.”
Nikky Finney, a passionate, beautiful poet from South Carolina, talked about one of her favorite uncles and about a grandmother who taught her to take a broom and to “sweep away yesterday and allow the new day to begin.” Sylvie Minot, the founder and executive director of Syzygy Dance Project, led the whole audience in body movement. Of French, Laotian and Vietnamese ancestry, Minot noted that her identities were often “at war inside her,” and that while the men in her family tended to be warriors, the women were healers. Larry Merculieff, an Aleut Indian from the Bering Sea, described the U.S. as “the inside out society.” He said that his people had survived for more than 10,000 years because they didn’t label themselves. “The infinite moment is where our real selves live,” he explained.
Nobody at the conference bothered to say much about Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), who coined the phrase “Geography of Hope.” Born in Iowa and raised in Saskatchewan and elsewhere, Stegner taught at Stanford and influenced two generations of novelists, including Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey and Ernest Gaines. In 1971, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Angle of Repose. Stegner first used the phrase “geography of hope” in a letter in which he observed that, “an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.” Of all the many twentieth-century white male environmentalists, Stegner was among the most insightful, though he had cultural blinders. So did Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), one of the founders of the Wilderness Society and the author of A Sand County Almanac. Stegner and Leopold tended to erase Indians from the landscape. There was something of the Boy Scout about them. Not so Greg Sarris.
Acutely aware of the history of the Pomo and Miwok, and intensely conscious of the mountains and valleys of northern California, Sarris tells stories about people and animals that provide a keen sense of belonging. In his view, storytellers can be healers who alter paradigms. They did for him, though he says he didn’t really read a book—Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—until he was mid-way through high school.
“The only thing that makes humans distinct is that we have language,” he told me during an interview for the AVA a day before this year’s Geography of Hope conference. Sarris added, “We need to change our narratives and we need to reconnect to both ancient ethics and aesthetics.”
When he looks at Santa Rosa, his hometown, he knows that what’s needed are profound social changes and radical shifts in attitude. Three-and-a-half-years after Sonoma County sheriff's deputy, Erick Gelhaus, shot and killed a 13-year old Latino named Andy Lopez, Sarris hasn’t forgotten. Nor has his anger and sadness dissipated. He says he’s still waiting for police officers to walk Latino neighborhoods, talk their talk, understand their culture and not regard them as the enemy.
On a personal level, Sarris might be called happy. Recently, one of his all-time favorite idols, folksinger Joan Baez, accompanied by the Native American activist, Marilyn Youngbird, visited the Rohnert Park resort and casino. Sarris played host. Baez and Youngbird regaled him with stories about the demonstrations they joined last year at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where tribal sovereignty—a cause near his heart—was sorely tested.
I’ve known Sarris for about 20-years. In fact, I served on the committee that interviewed him when he applied for the academic position he currently holds at Sonoma State University (SSU): the Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair in Writing and Native American Studies. Before he came to SSU, he taught at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA. He also authored two important books about Indian ethnography: Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream and Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. For years, The Press Democrat ran a smear campaign against him and the casino, though he fought back.
Now that the casino is a destination for both local and out-of-town gamblers, Sarris is a kind of institution revered for his wisdom and approached for money. He has access to plenty of it. He’ll have even more access when the tribe pays off its loan. He told me that when that happens the tribe will donate tens of millions of dollars a year to Sonoma County for “environmental restoration.”
Though Sarris doesn’t seek attention for himself, he’s a charismatic figure. You might say that for him the personal is cosmic and visa-versa.
“Clearly the earth is out-of-whack,” he told me. “For us, everything in nature—rocks, stones, air, wind and rain—are living spirits that have power, and everything is connected to everything else.” He added, “the crucial question today is how do we humans not run, not panic, not claw at our cages and instead make this planet habitable for everyone, whether they’re Indians, Anglos, Latinos, African Americans or Asian Americans.” I have never heard Sarris say, “I’m an Indian.” He knows that there’s no one single Indian identity and he argues, too, that diversity is at the heart of Native American values. His affiliation with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is in large part something that he has chosen for himself. After all, he wasn’t born into the tribe, didn’t have a totem from birth and didn’t have a Native American point of view, either.
As a boy growing up in Santa Rosa, he didn’t know much about his origins. What he did know was that he didn’t fit in with the other members of the Sarris family. They looked white; he had a darker skin color. Now, he says with almost perfect ease: “I had a Jewish mother, I was raised by Catholics, I had a Filipino grandfather and an American Indian grandmother.” He added, “I’m also gay.” George and Mary Sarris adopted him and raised him in Santa Rosa. (His biological parents never married.) As a young man, he created close ties with older Indian women like Mabel McKay who lived in the South Park neighborhood down hill from the ritzy neighborhoods.
Sarris doesn’t advertise his Jewish ancestors or his identity as a gay man, though he’s not in the closet, either. He told me wistfully, “If all those different identities—Jewish, Catholic, Filipino and Indian—can get along inside me, I don’t see why they can’t get along in our society.”
While Sarris has found satisfaction in his friendships, his work for the tribe, his teaching and his writing, he’s also deeply troubled.
“It hurts me personally that after all these years there are so many disconnections between people,” he told me.
Not surprisingly, Sarris doesn’t like walls. “Build a wall and people will go over it or under it,” he said. “It will eventually crumble or be torn down.” He added, “then there are what the poet William Blake called ‘the mind-forg’d manacles.’ We need to break those manacles, too.”
Sarris doesn’t care for the notion that any one people are “chosen” and destined to own anything. Moreover, he doesn’t like some of the things he sees in Native Americans today.
“Some Indians at some casinos get greedy and replicate the patterns of the society at large,” he said. “They expel members of the tribe. They pay low wages. They don’t have a sense of place.”
At the Graton Resort and Casino, Sarris aims to create an environment in which human beings are treated with respect. Twice a month, Latinos show up for big dances.
“You are safe here,” Sarris told me he tells the crowds. “We are on sovereign Indian land and no on can touch you.”
At the end of the day, he’s hopeful about the prospects for the earth and for humans.
“We’re in for a big test,” he said. “It’s essential not to cower in the face of disaster. We can’t go back into the past. That would be denial. We have to move through fears and into the future.”
(Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author most recently of “No Walls Now: New Poems for the Trump Era.”)