Now Playing

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.

"He looks scared,” says a woman sitting next to me. It’s an unseasonably warm day in November 2012, and we’re packed into an airless auditorium at Santa Rosa Junior College, waiting for a jittery-looking gentleman in cowboy boots to step up to the lectern. The man’s presence has put cheeks in the seats—even the aisles are standing room only. In a back corner, baseball team members in stirrups have wedged themselves around a cafeteria table. Along a window, a pair of cops stand watching. It’s not clear whether they are here to protect the guest of honor or have just dropped by for a glimpse of the action.

Waiting in the wings, the speaker, Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, cuts an imposing figure: tall and broad-shouldered, with the bulging biceps and jaggedly handsome features of someone who once sidelined as a model and palled around with the “whole Studio 54 gang.” Today, however, Sarris is fidgeting. Behind his rimless glasses lies the strained gaze of someone contemplating an imminent debacle. Sarris has reason to be apprehensive: These last several years, many of his speeches have devolved into shouting matches. Even a seemingly friendly crowd like this one—today’s lecture will deal with his tribe’s cultural history, not the mega-casino it is building nearby—might conceal the hecklers who often surface at engagements bearing his name.

In his 21 years as head of the Graton Rancheria Indians, Sarris has morphed from Sonoma County scholar, writer, and favorite son into controversial polestar. On November 5, his tribe plans to open a casino of unprecedented scale in the sleepy burb of Rohnert Park, just 42 miles north of San Francisco. In the parlance of the gaming world, it’s going to be Vegas-style: 320,000 square feet, 3,000 slot machines, 144 table games, 14 restaurants, two nightclubs, and, eventually, a 250-plus-room hotel. It cost close to a billion dollars to finance, a record for a California casino, and will have more slots than any establishment on the Vegas Strip. In sum, it’s just a step below Connecticut’s megalithic Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun gambling palaces, the biggest casinos in the western hemisphere. Victor Rocha, an Indian gaming analyst and editor of the casino trade site, tells me that the Graton Resort & Casino has all the components to become “possibly the most lucrative gaming property in the U.S.”

You can get a sense of the scope of the casino by walking up to the fence of the dairy farm that shares its northern boundary: From that perspective, the behemoth structure looks like a cross between Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and an air force base. Once its doors are thrown open for 24/7 business, it will instantly become Sonoma County’s largest employer. By most projections, it’ll collect enough cash in its first quarter to also make it the county’s most profitable company.

But that’s economics. Today, Sarris is here to talk history. “It all began with the early ethnographers who divided us into groups based on languages,” he says. “We did not exist this way before. We were one people, tied together by a shared spiritual tradition and connection to nature.”

Sarris’s people—a mix of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians—have lived in what is now Marin and Sonoma counties for over three millenia. After the Europeans crashed the party in California some 400 years ago, the Indians became locked in a cruel cycle of captivity and neglect that came to a head in the 1920s—when the Bureau of Indian Affairs put 15.5 acres in rural Sonoma County into trust for a rancheria to hold the “landless Indians of Marshall, Bodega, Tomales, and Sebastopol.” That tract of land, though mountainous, nearly uninhabitable, and in the end surreptitiously forfeited in a 1958 Congressional act, became the linchpin of the tribe’s justification for federal recognition in 2000. It not only gave them their name (the original rancheria was near the fruit-packing town of Graton), but also became the foundation of a future. As it becomes clear that this will be an interloper-free gathering, Sarris gains confidence, dropping in the occasional soft-science academicism (“we internalize the conflict dichotomy”). But his oratorical skills are more preacher than professor, and the crowd is feeling it. The previous day, Barack Obama had won his 2012 reelection bid. Every time that Sarris makes a suggestion with even vaguely political undertones, a woman to my side jumps out of her chair and screams, “Si se puede!”

By the end of his speech, Sarris is gesticulating freely. He’s taking questions from the crowd and giving surprisingly candid answers. A student who appears to be of Native American descent asks if gaming doesn’t signal the ultimate defeat of the white man. Defeat? Sarris demurs. It’s better than that. “Indian casinos make more money in this country than the entire Hollywood entertainment complex. You know what that money means? It means self-reliance.”

Sarris goes on to detail the full extent of this new Indian economic clout. He proclaims that Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, won his election because of “Indian money.” He talks about how he was able to negotiate the unionization of every job at the Graton casino. He says that he’s butted heads so fiercely with Senator Dianne Feinstein—an initial supporter of the tribe’s federal restoration, now an opponent of its leadership—that “my name spoken in Congress still makes her blood curdle.” What started as a lecture on Native American history has turned into a public flexing of political muscle.

Later, in a quieter moment, Sarris tells me that he considers himself a “reluctant leader.” The characterization seems genuine, yet it’s tough to reconcile with the firebrand I saw working that cafeteria. In fact, his reputation for navigating bureaucracies, his steamrolling of local opposition, his talent for winning extraordinary business concessions, his ownership of a beautiful $1.5 million home in the Sonoma hills, even his tribal nickname—Old Man Coyote, a reference to a spirit animal who is part creator, part trickster—all suggest that Greg Sarris’s ascent was anything but an accident.

Page two: "My life goals were to be a dairy man or a drug pusher."