By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Greg Sarris read, flawlessly and in a voice that carried to the corners of the high-ceilinged gallery, the new children’s story he’s written about characters from Indian lore named Fox, Rattlesnake and Raccoon competing for Hummingbird’s heart.
It is a parable about priorities and caring for the less advantaged, and the audience of about 50 applauded warmly in a studio in Santa Rosa’s A Street arts district.
Sarris, a Santa Rosa native and chairman for 20 years of a tribe planning to build a casino and resort next to Rohnert Park, has his own story. Woven with a past hard to unravel, his story also is about the perseverance that has his tribe poised to become a North Bay economic and political power.
The casino proposed by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria would be one of the largest in California, with 2,250 employees, yearly revenues of more than $300 million and almost 15,000 cars a day coming in and out of its parking lots.
At the reading earlier this month, Sarris, 60, was a guest author of the Imaginists Theatre Collective. But as he introduced the story and spoke about American Indians, he interrupted himself to raise the subject of the casino.
“I don’t want to get on my pulpit,” he said, “but people always come up to me and say, ‘Casinos aren’t Indian.’ And I always say, ‘What about Wal-Mart is Irish?’”
It was an unprompted comment about the casino plan that gets a first hearing in the state Senate on Tuesday — a subject that Sarris, wounded by what he considers unfair attacks on him and the tribe, has refused to discuss publicly for years.
And it was a sign of how closely gambling, race and controversy now shadow Sonoma State University’s highest-paid professor, who has six books to his name, one that was turned into an HBO movie produced by Robert Redford.
The casino has been a source of furious debate, lawsuits and public hearings for nearly a decade. And Sarris has been a public figure in Sonoma County since his writing career took off in the 1990s. Yet, he remains a public enigma.
As scrutiny of the casino proposal intensified, Sarris became less willing to discuss the tribe’s plans and to respond to withering community criticism. With construction coming as early as June, he refuses to be interviewed.
“He is a very complex person,” said retired Sonoma State University communications professor Jonah Raskin, a friend and writer with whom Sarris shares manuscripts he is working on. “Greg has more sides to him than just about anybody I know.”
The tall, charismatic Sarris has his roots in small-town, 1950s Santa Rosa. He rose to academic success — earning a doctorate from Stanford University — and national prominence as an author and lecturer living in Southern California.
Since the early 1990s, he has parlayed the force of will and powerful political ties into a successful bid for tribal recognition, winning the backing of a multibillion-dollar Las Vegas gambling company for the $433million casino and resort.
For the past six years, he has lived in Sonoma County and continued to push the project closer to reality.
Throughout, friends say, Sarris has followed the threads of a difficult personal quest.
“I think for a lot of Greg’s life, he’s been searching for an identity and an identity that fits,” Raskin said.
Sarris’ kaleidoscope persona springs from his first day, when he was adopted at birth in Santa Rosa. He was raised by middle-class Proctor Terrace parents, Mary and George Sarris. He had three siblings, all now deceased, attended St. Eugene’s parochial school with children from the city’s leading families and graduated from Santa Rosa High School in 1970.
Still, he gravitated to the hardscrabble South Park neighborhood, driven by a sense of cultural and personal dislocation and by a severely troubled relationship with his adopted father.
It was in that neighborhood near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds that an extended American Indian family took him in.
“He looked like a typical all-white boy, but he just filtered in with the family,” said Ruben Lopez, part of the family that befriended the young Sarris.
As he grew older and pursued higher goals, Sarris set an example for others, said Lopez, who met Sarris as a teenager.
“He had a lot to do with my aspirations,” said Lopez, who earned a graduate degree in psychology. “Greg never sat me down and said ‘Do this,’ but it was his demeanor that inspired me.”
In his 30s, while at Stanford, Sarris began researching his genealogy and in a life-transforming discovery, learned that he is part Indian through his father. That has, to all appearances, been the bedrock of his identity since.
“We have been the poorest people, the longest-oppressed people, the people who have the greatest genocide per capita … (and) we have given more money than any single donor in the history of Sonoma County,” Sarris said in 2005, referring to the tribe’s $200 million revenue-sharing deal with Rohnert Park.
“He lives with all of Indian history,” Raskin said. “He does feel like he has this real responsibility to the tribe and he’s got to finish what he started.”
But years before his 1,300-member tribe became a lightning rod for fears about sovereign nations and Indian gambling, most of Sonoma County knew Sarris as a writer.
His first commercially successful book, “Grand Avenue,” was a 1995 story collection named for a South Park street that plumbed the daily lives of people on life’s rougher margins. The filming in South Park of the “Grand Avenue” movie was an event heralded as a local son making very good.
To this day, friends and supporters say that Sarris’ writing and teaching is what really drive him. He is working on a novel, a book of children’s stories he read from last week and a nonfiction collection.
“That’s what he lives for, that’s what he feels he was born to do,” said Susan Moore, a friend of 15 years who also leads an informal advisory group to the tribe.
“The rest of it is a responsibility that he tries to do the best he can,” she said.
But even before he was made its chairman, he was advocating forcefully for the tribe, especially when he thought it was under attack.
In 1992, when he was an assistant English professor at UCLA, he said of a distant Pomo tribe’s plan to open a casino resort at Tomales Bay: “They are trespassing, this is going to happen over our dead bodies,” according to news accounts.
That year, at a meeting in Roseland called by Sarris and attended by a Los Angeles Times writer, the Federated Coast Miwok — a group that included Southern Pomo — gathered formally for the first time in generations, prompted by the threat of the casino on their historic territory, which stretched from Marin County through southern Sonoma County.
Sarris was elected chairman of the tribe with all but three of several hundred votes. Then, according to the Times writer, he rebuffed the Pomo leader, Jeff Wilson, who was there to ask tribal support for the project in exchange for a share of casino profits.
Once Wilson left, Sarris said to the gathering: “He wants to own us. But if we get federally recognized, we will own our identity. We will have the power to negotiate with the rest of the world. We will be able to say who we are. We will need nobody.”
He has been devoted ever since to the tribe’s cause.
“As he said to me, ‘Your baby’s out on the freeway and you can see a huge truck bearing down on it, and what do you do? You have to try,’” Moore said.
Sarris, by his own account, led the attempt to win that crucial recognition. “I ran the restoration effort with some of my friends; Robert Redford helped,” he said in 2000.
Tribal status restored
That year, the U.S. Senate restored tribal status to the band of Miwok and Pomo Indians whose Graton rancheria had been terminated by the federal government in 1958. The tribe was renamed the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the longtime Petaluma Democrat, introduced the legislation to restore the tribe’s status. But she withdrew her support after Sen. Barbara Boxer removed a clause prohibiting casinos on any land that the tribe acquired.
The day of the restoration, in a comment that dogs him to this day, Sarris also said of the newly recognized tribe’s plans: “We will be looking for forms of economic development, but casinos are not in the picture.”
Sarris has been watched closely by other tribes. But he is little known among them; it is not where he has devoted his time.
“Indian Country is very small, but Greg hasn’t been on the scene much, he’s not a networker,” said Victor Rocha of the Pechanga band of Luiseño Indians in Riverside County, a longtime Indian gambling analyst.
Still, Rocha said, Sarris’ leadership of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria — which in March received its gambling compact from the state — has been noted and appreciated.
“He is known because of his struggle, not because he presses the flesh,” Rocha said. “When we thought that there wasn’t any progress being made, he pulls it out of the hat and gets it done.”
Sarris mixes with, among others, a high-flying crowd of rock stars, politicians, academics, writers and show-business personalities.
“I loved being with him,” said Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Broadway hits including “Rent,” “West Side Story” and “La Boheme,” who discussed with Sarris creating a Broadway musical about the Indian experience.
“He’s gregarious, he has powerful, outrageous opinions and he’s not afraid to express them. And that is stimulating,” Seller said.
But in the North Bay, Sarris is as polarizing a figure as the casino is a divisive subject.
“He’s a very arrogant leader,” said Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who has led the anti-casino effort and has met several times with Sarris and also debated him.
“He is not a kind person,” said Worthington, who is frank about his dislike of the tribal chairman. “For whatever reasons, he has to be the center of attention and when he’s not in control, he gets really frustrated.”
Sarris, said former Rohnert Park Councilwoman Vicki Vidak-Martinez, “can be intense” but “that’s not unusual in government. You have to remember he’s the leader of a sovereign nation.”
“Greg is flamboyant, but he’s also a very intelligent man and what he’s done is use his ability to work with people and research things and really do a good job for his tribe,” said Vidak-Martinez, who met with Sarris over the course of a year when the tribe first began consider the city as a casino site.
In 2005, the tribe and Station Casinos, its Las Vegas backer, paid $100 million to real estate financier Clem Carinalli and two other local businessmen for farmland just off Highway 101 behind Scandia Family Fun Center and just south of Home Depot.
That year, too, Sarris was named to an endowed SSU faculty chair on Native American Studies that was funded by a $2.5 million gift from his tribe.
Today, he is the highest-paid SSU professor, with a $157,656 salary; $91,591 of that is paid by the tribe’s endowment. His three-course teaching load is half that of other professors, under his contract.
The arrangement allows Sarris to fulfill responsibilities to lecture in the community and to write, research and publish, said Thaine Stearns, the interim dean of SSU’s School of Arts and Humanities.
“He is a leading public intellectual,” Stearns said.
Among student reviews posted on the Rate My Professors website, two that capture equally his students’ criticism and praise, said:
“He talks about himself. Alot. However, he is an amazing teacher, and he will help you take your writing to unimagined heights.”
“Amazing! Pretty self-absorbed, plus he repeats himself, but he’s fascinating and a great writing teacher. Easy A.”
High profile though he is, Sarris has nevertheless been increasingly hostile with the media.
He hasn’t commented for stories involving him, the tribe or the casino since 2010, even on occasions such as when Gov. Jerry Brown in March announced that the state had reached a groundbreaking agreement with the tribe, a signal step in the casino project. Several times, he has cursed at or insulted Press Democrat reporters before hanging up on them.
Tribal council members, too, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.
“That’s completely up to the tribe,” said Scott Nielson, executive vice president and chief development officer for Station Casinos, when asked what public role the company believed Sarris should play in the community.
“It’s always their decision, whether it’s what the casino looks like or how they handle relations with the media,” Nielson said.
In its sole public communication since it received its gambling compact, the tribe on April 20 issued a one-paragraph, unsigned press release. It noted the “unprecedented” revenue-sharing agreements it had made with the county and with Rohnert Park. And it said the tribe would make an announcement “in the near future” about the jobs the project would create.
Sarris’ antipathy to the media — The Press Democrat, in particular — springs from nearly a decade of what he believes is slanted news coverage of him, the tribe’s intentions and the controversial casino project, friends say.
“He just thinks that he’s been very misrepresented in The Press Democrat,” said Connie Codding, one of Sarris’ and the tribe’s most prominent supporters.
The casino proposal burst onto the North Bay’s landscape in 2003, when the tribe said it would build one on Highway 37 near Sears Point.
After a firestorm of opposition, the tribe relinquished the environmentally sensitive bay lands it had targeted and shifted its sights to Rohnert Park, where Councilman Jake Mackenzie had suggested it might find a home.
At a later Rohnert Park City Council meeting, held in the Spreckels Center for the Performing Arts because public interest was so great, Sarris was showered with boos as he said, “We are not leaving.”
Rocky return home
That year, too, Sarris returned to Sonoma County from Hollywood, buying a $1.45 million house on Sonoma Mountain.
It was a rocky return.
The SSU appointment after a national search was criticized in letters to the editor as a sweetheart deal. Sarris was excoriated by community critics for going back on his word about the casino. People said he was holding Rohnert Park “hostage” with the tribe’s offer to negotiate a profit-sharing deal if it would drop its opposition to the casino.
He struck back.
“People opposing gaming are drinking wine from an industry doing more damage than a casino might,” he said.
At other times, he characterized opposition to the casino as racist — and racist slurs were flung, aimed at Indians.
The charges and insults stung, friends said.
“I would say he felt under attack as soon as he came back,” Raskin said. “He hears the Sonoma County gossip and what people have said about him, and it hurts him.”
Opposition to the casino has turned extraordinarily personal at times.
Perhaps most notably, in 2010, one of his most dedicated opponents, Marilee Montgomery of Rohnert Park, said her research into U.S. Census records proved Sarris has no trace of Indian heritage.
Sarris called the charge “racist and evil.”
“He feels he’s not been treated with respect or fairly,” Codding said.
To this day, a sense of grievance seems to cling to the tribal leader.
At his story reading, Sarris at one point apologized for digressing, saying it was because he was not used to a friendly crowd.
“I’m surrounded by people who love me,” he told the audience. “It’s not something I usually have to worry about.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or email@example.com.