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    Greg Sarris: Novelist, Screenwriter, Professor, and Indian Chief

    Greg Sarris is a renowned author, scholar, teacher, and Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which is the site of the well-known Graton Resort & Casino. His identity as a gay individual, as well as being biracial, has helped to shape all aspects of his work, including restoring and rebuilding his Tribe that is now federally recognized as an American Indian Nation.

    Among the First to Develop LGBT Curriculum

    A former professor of English at UCLA, Sarris was one of the first academics to develop gay and lesbian literature courses. He still teaches, holding the Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair in Writing and Native American Studies at Sonoma State University—not far from where he was raised.

    “My sexuality was always just a part of who I was,” Sarris said. “I never denied it, but I was always adamant to advocate and make sure that LGBTQ people were not only represented, but protected.”

    He added during a recent interview with the San Francisco Bay Times: “There are no other very visible American Indians tribal leaders who are gay. I now serve on the board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. We work on rewriting curriculum, and we’re working with Governor Gavin Newsom to get that required in schools.”

    Mentored by a Tribal Medicine Woman and Basket Weaver

    Sarris’ concern for youth and their development is genuine, given the difficulties that he experienced when growing up. Adopted, Sarris was sent to live with various foster families. At the age of 12, he met Pomo basket weaver and Tribal medicine woman Mabel McKay, who became his mentor and teacher.

    “McKay was the last living member of the Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo Tribe,” Sarris said. “She taught me about Native customs and traditions. She gave me a sense of purpose.”

    He later wrote her biography, the critically acclaimed Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (1994).

    “Mabel McKay was so important to me,” Sarris emphasized. “She said that the richest people, when they die, are the ones with the most stories. The only way that you can get stories is to live long enough.”

    Discovery of Pomo Ancestry

    Sarris is indeed a survivor with stories. His adopted parents divorced when he was a teenager, further destabilizing any sense of family security. He knew about his biological mother, who when unwed had given him up for adoption. But it was not until he was a graduate student at Stanford University that he learned about his biological father: Emilio Arthur Hilario, a man of Filipino, Miwok, and—like McKay—Pomo descent.

    Sarris’ journey to learn more about his roots has inspired numerous highly acclaimed books, including Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (1993), a widely anthologized collection of essays; Grand Avenue (1994), an awarded collection of short stories that was adapted for an HBO miniseries of the same name that was co-executive produced by Robert Redford; and Watermelon Nights (1999), which was adapted for a play by the Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department. He has also written plays for Pieces of the Quilt, Intersection Theatre, and the Mark Taper Forum.

    His most recent literary work, How a Mountain Was Made, is a collection of interconnected original stories that were inspired by traditional Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tales. The stories are timeless in their wisdom and beauty, and because of this timelessness their messages are vital and immediate. The figures in the stories ponder the meaning of leadership, of their place within the landscape, and their community—subjects that Sarris has himself well considered over the decades.

    The Federated Indians of the Graton Racheria

    He especially had such subjects in mind in 1992, when, at the beginning of his teaching career at UCLA as an assistant professor, he got word of another tribe attempting to establish a casino at Tomales Bay. This tribe was not Coast Miwok or Southern Pomo and was well out of its ancestral territory, he explained.

    Sarris immediately notified and consulted with his Tribal elders, and soon after called the first meeting to reorganize the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. He led the push for restoration of the Tribe as being federally recognized. It took years of gathering records, family histories, and interviews of all who were descended from the original Tribal members in order for this evidence to be submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

    Finally, eight years later, Greg co-authored the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act, 25 U.S.C. §1300n (Act) with California Indian Legal Services. “Senator Barbara Boxer attached it to another bill and introduced it to Congress on May 25, 2000,” Sarris said. “President Clinton signed the Act into law on December 27 of that year, officially granting the Tribe status as a federally recognized tribe. The Act mandated that the Secretary of the Interior take land in the Tribe’s aboriginal territory of Marin or Sonoma Counties into trust as the Tribe’s reservation. This was only the beginning.”

    Sarris spearheaded the effort to build a casino at the location, and in April 2003 solicited bids for business partners. The Tribe entered into an agreement with Station Casinos, Inc., to acquire land for its Reservation to develop and manage a destination resort hotel and casino. The Tribe borrowed over $225 million from Station Casinos for the purchase of the property that became the Tribe’s Reservation and for the pre-development costs of the Graton Resort and Casino.

    After significant lobbying, again led by Sarris, then Governor Jerry Brown in March 2012 signed a gaming compact with the Tribe to conduct Class III gaming. The compact was ratified by the California Legislature and approved by the Secretary of the Interior in July 2012. 

    Dignity in the Workplace

    With the Graton Resort & Casino now established, along with an elegant Spa & Salon, Sarris as Tribal Chairman works to ensure that the overall business is inclusive for employees and guests.

    “It’s all about dignity in the workplace,” he said. “We have 2,000 team members and everyone who works here gets the Kaiser gold Cadillac health plan. If you work 20 or more hours a week, you pay nothing out of your paycheck and both with the team members and with the guests, there is an overriding policy here that I have established: The only thing we don’t tolerate is intolerance. I love walking around here on Friday and Saturday nights seeing LGBTQ guests walking around being comfortable.”

    He added, “I’m very proud that we have several transgender people working for us, including several beverage servers. I’m also proud that we have Spanish to English and English to Spanish classes on site. We had dreams of providing great jobs for people and college scholarships. We have done that over the past seven years, and that makes me happy.”

    Stewards of the Land

    Graton is now one of the biggest and busiest casinos in California, with more than 3,300 slot machines and 131 table games. That is not even taking into account the guests who come for the fine restaurants, the Spa with its Valentine’s chocolate manicures and pedicures, and the concerts that often sell out quickly. (The upcoming REO Speedwagon, Chris D’Elia, and Gabriel Iglesias shows, for example, all sold out in a flash.)

    All of this means traffic, trash, needed water use, and the usual impacts associated with human activity. The land was once envisioned, however, as the site of a large retail shopping center that would be annexed into the city limits of Rohnert Park. It is hard to imagine that the shopping center developers would be as concerned about environmental issues as Sarris is.

    “We are at the forefront of organizing farms to grow organic produce for all of our elders,” Sarris says. “We are currently designing much larger farms so that we can supply our team dining room with organic foods.”

    He said that he and his Tribe have donated $9 million to environmental causes in just the past six years. They were also key to the establishment and passage of Measure M in 2018. Through a one-eighth cent sales tax, it provides dedicated funding for Sonoma County’s regional and city parks for ten years (as of its going into effect in April 2019).

    “We also support social justice programs, such as food banks, Meals on Wheels, and a literacy program,” Sarris said. “With Joan Baez, we made a documentary addressing social issues.”

    Baez was even inspired to do a painting of the charismatic Sarris. She entitled it “Greg: The Mischief Maker,” and hung it on a wall in her home.

    Storyteller at Heart

    Sarris could have easily been swept away in the world of show biz; Baez is not his only well-known admirer. He also no longer needs to worry much about an academic’s paycheck. But it is hard to imagine him not teaching and writing. When he speaks about Indigenous stories, his mood brightens. He read this passage about Sonoma Mountain from How a Mountain Was Made: Stories:

    “The Mountain has always been a special place for Coast Miwok people. The stories from the Mountain teach        important lessons, and many of the songs that Coast Miwok people have sung since the beginning of time are gifts from the Mountain and come from the stories. It is said that Coyote was sitting atop Sonoma Mountain when he decided to create the world and people—but that is part of the big story of the Mountain and we are getting ahead of ourselves.”

    He then went on to tell about Coyote’s twin granddaughters, Answer Woman and Question Woman, whom some believe are a pair of crows while others think are human. “In any event,” the tale continues, “Answer Woman and Question Woman have been on Sonoma Mountain a long time—they are the granddaughters of Coyote, after all. They know all the stories.”

    Sarris knows and weaves many stories too, but he is still very much in his prime. With time hopefully on his side, he will embody and hear even more stories that, as McKay wisely said, are a true measure of wealth.

    To learn more about Sarris, go to

    Graton’s website:

    Published on January 30, 2020