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Old Man Coyote Dreams of Slots

Greg Sarris had a simple goal for his tribe: self-reliance. All he needed was a billion dollars.

From a ridge near his $1.5 million home in the Sonoma foothills, Greg Sarris can gaze upon his people's ancestral lands.

The Graton Casino readies for its November 5th opening.

The Graton Rancheria offices are in a stucco-and-glass Rubik’s Cube of a building on an industrial parkway south of the casino. The space is home not only to administrative offices, but also to the Tribal TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program. The multistory facility includes a health clinic, social workers’ offices, a childcare program, and a computer lab. This is no shabby warren of bureaucratic stasis. The place is technological. The building’s large windowpanes are smoky dark, like a limo’s. The computer room hums. 

I meet Sarris on the top floor in a conference room with a large, modern, wood table in the center and pitchers of iced tea and a plate of spring rolls on a side banquette. Views of surrounding foothills are framed by colorful vegetation sprouting up from a native-species garden on the terrace. Sarris, who drives a Lexus hybrid, asks me, “Do I look like the type of person who’s ever been to a casino? I didn’t have the slightest interest in gaming. This is about resilience.”

For the first time in centuries, the Graton Rancheria Indians have the political and economic might to control their own destiny. Ever in professorial mode, Sarris details his people’s legacy of servitude in Northern California, under Franciscan missionaries first, then Mexican ranchers, Russian fur traders, and Swiss and Italian dairy owners. Indians felled the lumber that built San Francisco not once, but twice—the second time after the 1906 Great Fire. Having spent the better part of this state’s history working toward someone else’s commercial goals, they finally have the chance to work toward their own. “Funny,” Sarris says. “Until casinos, no one knew there were any Indians left in California. Now it’s all they want to talk about.”

Sarris won’t discuss the internal tribal discussions that led to the decision to pursue a casino—coolly, he tells me that tribal decisions are a private matter—but in hindsight, the outcome seems obvious. There really is only one proven way for a new tribe to guarantee its long-term survival: gaming.

And sure enough, the 2003 agreement with Station Casinos has turned out to be a real chicken dinner for the tribe—and for the city and county encircling it. Up front, Sarris secured a plump $200 million pre-development package from Station Casinos that allowed the tribe to start shopping for land and begin drafting a revenue-sharing plan with Rohnert Park. In that plan, the tribe agreed to pay Sonoma County and Rohnert Park guaranteed sums of $5 million and $9 million, respectively. In addition, both stand to receive $12 million a year if the tribe hits its revenue projections. Plus, Sarris devised a special fund for Sonoma County’s Parks and Open Space that could reach up to $25 million annually. That money, within a few years, could give the county the biggest open space budget in the country. Sarris says that he wants to use it to build a system of organic gardens for low-income families. There are additional funds for mitigating gambling addiction, for an environmental center, and for revenue sharing with non-gaming tribes in Sonoma County. The total package could reach up to $75 million a year.

These seem like plainly well-intentioned aims, but it’s unclear whether things are ever that simple with Sarris. I occasionally wonder if, as his tribal nickname suggests, I am being trickstered. Sarris is an eloquent speaker, expelling long, fluid disquisitions that weave together multiple layers of anecdotes, statistics, and superlatives. But at times I wonder if there is a false forthcomingness to his soliloquies: Are they rhetorical smoke screens? A way of obstructing dialogue? Of controlling the message? I begin to wonder if this is some kind of tell. Surely, defining oneself as a “cultural loner” and “displaced soul” has been the grist of many a great artist—and many a great politician. But Sarris takes pains to insist that he is not a politician but a community leader, and an accidental one at that.

“I have a disdain for power plays and politicians who are all running around trying to get points,” Sarris tells me, looking like he’s just put a battery in his mouth. “They enter a room and look around, and points are the first thing they think about.”

Within the Native American community, Sarris’s leadership has earned him nothing but laurels. As tribes have built more and more casinos throughout the past quarter century, the money pouring into tribal coffers has tended to have a splintering effect, leading to leadership coups, family feuds, and allegations of diluted Indian blood. The economic incentives for disenrollment—the punitive expulsion of a tribe member from the federal tribal rolls—are eminently clear: The smaller the tribe, the larger each slice of the casino pie. Sarris advocated for the Graton Rancheria’s constitution to formally ban disenrollment, adding a kicker in the tribe’s 20-year state compact that will levy fines against the tribe if it ever defies that commitment. Some Indian law analysts hope that this policy will become tribal protocol nationwide.

It may seem odd to compare Sarris to great historical Indian leaders like Geronimo, Quanah Parker, and Russell Means, but that’s exactly the context in which tribal experts speak of him. There’s a wistful music to the way those names are pronounced by Native Americans, as if they’re patiently awaiting the person who will revitalize their legacies. “We don’t have a lot of leaders who have national recognition like they did in the ’60s and ’70s,” says David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. “I’m hoping that Sarris’s ideas become a precedent for the next generation.”

When I ask Sarris if he’d rather be known in the end for his writing— he has authored four books and edited several others—or his tribal leadership, his answer seems almost resigned: “I’ll always go with writing because I hope that my writing is more broad-based and reaching. But I’m very aware that if people are reading fiction in 50 years, then we’ll be lucky. And I understand just how big of a deal this casino is—to the tribe and to the community.”

Driving up to the top of Sonoma Mountain, you can see the entire swath of Marin and Sonoma counties in the turn of a head: khaki foothills dotted with century-old oak stands, undulating rows of vineyard, a red-tailed hawk bent against a flagrantly blue sky. Jack London, a man who spent his life crossing the globe in search of wildness and grandeur, established his Beauty Ranch on this mountain. He said of it, “Next to my wife, this ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” Sarris’s $1.5 million house is up here somewhere.

It’s easy to transpose a historical map onto this vista. It was once Miwok-Pomo land. To the south you can see the mudflats of San Pablo Bay, where the Indians fished and dug for clams. Farther north is the coastal range of the Kashaya Pomo, where Robert F. Kennedy once visited and, according to tribal lore, a medicine woman predicted his assassination. Sarris told me that before the Spanish and their invasive species arrived, these hills were green year-round. Imagine that: emerald hills, even in summer—it’d be like Ireland. That’s the past, though, and these days we live only for tomorrow. Soon, just west of Rohnert Park, on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands, a new chapter in the county’s history will open. The future, like it or not, is slots, politics, taxes, and land at $1 million an acre. What will all this prosperity bring? Perhaps only the coyotes know.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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