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The Byrne Report

Power Song

DR. GREGORY SARRIS SPOKE about his life to a small audience at Sonoma State University on March 25. Sarris is a professor of English at UCLA. He has written several fine novels set in Sonoma County. He is also the chief of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The tribe is partnered with Station Casinos of Las Vegas to build a casino-resort hotel on an endangered wetlands situated on the border of Rohnert Park. Neither the tribe (as it is now reconstituted) nor the casino deal would exist were it not for the ongoing efforts of the energetic, provocative, brilliant Sarris, whose personal story is deeply intertwined with our local history.

Sarris reminisced about coasting through college. His teachers told him that Indians have an oral culture. So Sarris told stories about Coyote instead of writing term papers. "I am smart. I can work it," Sarris laughed. The audience laughed, too. It is easy to appreciate his enjoyment of his own professional success, his gleeful narcissism.

And why not laugh? Who among us does not see himself or herself as the center of the universe? In Sonoma County, whether you are for or against the Graton's goal of minting millions of dollars--while changing the ecology of the county for the worse--your position is probably based on perceived self-interest.

For example, while there are solid environmental grounds for protecting the last several hundred acres of wetlands at the headwaters of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, upon which Sarris and Station Casinos plan to erect a sewage-emitting profit factory, there are other ways of looking at the project. That last scrap of flood plain is part of a much larger wetland area that has already been paved over and polluted by big-box businesses, a print factory and scores of homeowners and small businesses.

The non-Native Americans squatting on the Laguna de Santa Rosa tend to be critical of Sarris' and Station's environmentally destructive scheme, as they clutch their plots of wetland encrusted with paved driveways, concrete patios, overflowing septic tanks and rusting automobile and tractor engines leaching toxins into the dying wetland. They object to the proposed casino's gargantuan water use but suck the aquifer dry for their own sustenance.

Looking at casino development from the point of view of a people whose ancestors were butchered, raped and dispossessed by the cultural-economic ancestors of the current denizens of the wetlands, one can appreciate how Indians might care less about the well-being of the settlers and industries that pollute the Laguna de Santa Rosa today.

"I have a love-hate affair with Sonoma County, " Sarris said. "Yet it is home, and we are here to reclaim all parts of it."

The chief is descended from a 30,000-strong Indian nation that was decimated by Spanish and Russian and American colonizers. Before his great-grandmother escaped, she was savagely raped by Gov. Mariano Vallejo's overseers at the Petaluma Adobe slave plantation. Sarris is the self-proclaimed "illegitimate" son of a Filipino-Indian-Mexican father and the white heiress to a department store fortune who died at his birth. His transformation from glue-sniffing adoptee to world-class intellectual informs his beautifully written novels. Watermelon Nights and Grand Avenue unveil the aftermath of genocide in which Luther Burbank's gardens flourished.

"Until there were casinos, nobody knew there were Indians in California," Sarris observed. "Casinos are the most radical thing that has happened to the Indians since the Gold Rush."

Sarris has just been confirmed as a Sonoma State professor; he will move back to the home he left 30 years ago. "Think about how much trouble I have caused living 500 miles away in Los Angeles. Think what I'll do when I get here!"He points out that "no amount of money can save our souls. The poverty of the soul cannot be bought away. What will enable us is the option to have options."

His options may be narrowing, though. Sarris says the tribe has borrowed $20 million from Station Casinos. He might want to pay it back in a timely manner. The folks who own and operate Station Casinos are not descended from philanthropists. Local, state and national politicians are clearly sensing that public opinion is turning against the proliferation of casinos and poverty-pimping under the guise of Indian sovereignty.

Depending on your place in history, the Graton's gamble can be seen as an act of colonization by the formerly colonized. Or as bought-off Indians fronting for a white-owned corporation that feeds on pain. Or as a righteous act of self-determination and karmic pay-back for five centuries of genocide.

"One of the things we were taught is that everything in life has songs of power, songs of protection," Sarris said. "If you violate another person, a woman, a child, a tree, an animal, a rock, or even the local water flow, it will come back on you. You were constantly reminded that you are not the center of the universe."

Fine words, indeed.

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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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