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Old Man Coyote Dreams of Slots
Maxwell Klinger | Photo: Ramin Rahimian | October 22, 2013
Greg Sarris had a simple goal for his tribe: self-reliance. All he needed was a billion dollars.
When you first set eyes on the tribal leader, it is virtually impossible not to have some variation of the same thought: This guy’s an Indian? At 61, Sarris looks more like a Sun Valley–vacationing CEO—one who diets, tans, and skis profusely—than like a wizened old chief. He wears a kind of urban-rustic uniform: crisp crimson button-down, jeans creased down the front, shiny black cowboy boots. He doesn’t appear the least bit Native American—at least not in the stereotypical sense. “If you’re wondering,” he says coyly, “I’m part Jewish, part Filipino, part Indian—less than a quarter on my father’s side.”
I first meet Sarris at another lecture hall, this one at Sonoma State University, where he is a chaired professor of Native American studies and the school’s highest-paid teacher (a result of a large endowment from his tribe). He has just wrapped up a three-hour lecture on California’s rancheria system. As his students file out, we take seats in the first row beneath the glow of a giant projector screen. He begins to talk about his life, the topography of which is as rocky as his tribe’s.
Sarris was born at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital on February 12, 1952, to a 17-year-old Laguna Beach debutante named Bunny Hartman, whose family had whisked her up north for a secret pregnancy. He was immediately put up for adoption and taken in by George and Mary Sarris, a local couple who were having trouble conceiving. His biological mother, Bunny, passed away a few days later after a botched blood transfusion. “Her grave is there [in Santa Rosa] to this day,” he says. “Not even a proper gravestone, just an upside-down horseshoe.”
Sarris says that his adoptive father was verbally and physically abusive and that he would beg his mother to ship him off to stay with family friends for protection. (George and Mary divorced in 1964.) By his teenage years, he was roughnecking around Santa Rosa, working on dairy farms, pouring concrete, and attending school only sporadically.
When Sarris began hanging around the hardscrabble neighborhoods of south Santa Rosa, he happened to befriend several Native American families. It was the Indian tradition of storytelling—“just the whole sitting on the porch and talking thing”—that got him interested in writing and eventually enticed him back to school. “Before that, my life goals were to be either a dairy man or a drug pusher,” he says. After improving his high school grades, he got into Santa Rosa Junior College, then transferred to UCLA, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1976.
It was at Stanford, where he went on to earn a PhD in modern thought, that Sarris underwent the kind of identity crisis that turns many adopted kids into amateur detectives. At 31, still a fresh-faced grad student, Sarris tracked his dead biological mother’s lineage to a country-clubbing Orange County family that ran in the same circle as Elizabeth Taylor. His biological father, it surfaced, was a part-Filipino, part-Indian boy named Emilio Hilario Jr., a Laguna High football star who would later play at USC. Sarris tells me that Junior, as he was called, felt that he was preternaturally unlucky and would cut the number 13 into his arm during class. He was “dark, handsome, and virile, with a masochistic side,” Sarris says. He was also a womanizer and, later, an alcoholic.
By the time that Sarris traced his Native American roots back to Southern California, Junior had already died of a heart attack. His biological grandfather, Hilario Sr., immediately pegged Sarris for a kinsman when he came knocking on his door. Sarris gradually began meeting other members of the family—which extends all the way to Sonoma County—and learned that his great-great-grandfather had been a Miwok medicine man named Tom Smith. A cousin in the family started calling Sarris “Junior-Junior” because of his spitting-image resemblance to his father.
In 1992, when Sarris, now 40, returned to UCLA to take a professorship in the English department, his newfound family received word that a tribe from Cloverdale had convinced Japanese investors to build a casino on Tomales Bay. That was Coast Miwok land, Graton land, as spelled out by the 1910 Federal Rancheria Act, so Sarris’s new tribespeople quickly organized to stop it. They elected Sarris tribal chairman in a landslide vote. The publicity that he brought to the clash (as a promising young writer in L.A., he’d become acquainted with a growing group of entertainment heavyweights, like Robert Redford and Michael Bennett, the famed Broadway choreographer) gave the Japanese investors cold feet, and the casino effort was nixed.
At this point, Sarris began to pursue the tribe’s first order of business: getting its federal status restored. Throughout the ’90s, political momentum had been growing to re-recognize disenfranchised tribes and allow them to reestablish their rancherias. Sarris knew the power of a well-crafted narrative. With the help of powerful Hollywood friends, he began petitioning legislators with sympathetic views. He found eager supporters in Senator Feinstein and Representative Lynn Woolsey, who sponsored the Graton Rancheria’s federal restoration bill in Congress.
Sarris vividly remembers the day in December 2000, when it all came together. He was sitting in twilight traffic in L.A., when his phone rang: “It’s my attorney saying that our sovereignty has just been signed into law by Bill Clinton, weeks before he’ll leave office.” The news was so overwhelming that he had to pull off Wilshire Boulevard. He flew home to deliver the news to the tribe in person, and they celebrated in familiar fashion: praying, eating, telling stories till dawn.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this moment for a tribe. American Indian law is bafflingly complex, and very gray in places, but there is no question that the conferring of sovereignty comes with enormous potential benefits. (And these benefits are not easily acquired: No other tribe has had its sovereignty restored through an act of Congress since that day in 2000.) The 1,300 members of the Graton Rancheria could now qualify for federal aid, distribute government benefits as they deemed fit, police themselves, and, of course, given the right circumstances, build their own casino.
Only, they still didn’t have any land.