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Chairman Greg Sarris on the Reincarnation of the American Indian

On this week's "Scheer Intelligence," Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, explores the urgent need for an American future rooted in indigenous knowledge.
Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. [Photo courtesy of Greg Sarris]

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America’s original sin of settler colonialism and indigenous genocide has left an indeible mark on the country to this day, especially on the remaining members of Native American tribes. Our revisionist retellings of this critical part of our history also continues to harm all of us and the land on which we live. Tribal leaders like Greg Sarris, who is serving his 15th term as Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California, however, understand that to chart a sustainable path forward, America needs not only to acknowledge its painful past but also root its future plans in indigenous knowledge. This is part of what the Sonoma State University professor and novelist powerfully explores in his upcoming memoir, “Becoming Story: A Journey among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors.” 

The book, which will be published by Heyday Books on April 5, takes readers on Sarris’ deeply personal journey to understand his own identity and how it reflects not only the history of the land to which he was born but the landscape itself. On this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Sarris joins host Robert Scheer to discuss his life as documented in “Becoming Story,” tracing his roots as an adopted child with a biological Native American father to attending UCLA and Stanford University and later becoming the tribal leader he is today. To Sarris, living in California and a world ravaged by climate change, there is no more urgent time than now to look to understand our natural world and connection to it. 

“In rediscovering my own story,” Sarris tells Scheer, “[my book becomes a tale of] looking at the world in a different way. The European model is one of the great chain of being, a hierarchy where you have God on top and the king and the queen and then man and then the woman below man, and so on and so forth. For us, everything had power. Anything living—the smallest thing—could have power; a pebble or a stone, you respected everything. There was an equality of life.” 

The tribal leader also describes how, despite having hesitations about casinos on tribal lands, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have gone on to fund wonderful environmental and educational projects with the funds they’ve generated from the Graton Resort and Casino in Northern California. Listen to the full conversation between Sarris and Scheer as the novelist grapples with his place in the world and, in doing so, offers us a different vision for our own.



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests, I always say every week. And clearly in this case; Greg Sarris is the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria—I get that wrong all the time. He’s a descendant of Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok Indians in Central California.  

And he’s written an incredible book, and it’s about history. It’s called Becoming Story: A Journey among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors. It’s published by Heyday Books, which kind of specializes in trying to make Native American history, particularly that rooted in California, come alive. They’ve done a great job, over the decades, of that. 

And I just am blown away by this book. It’s—you know, for those of you who get angry when I talk about thousand-page books on Ronald Reagan or on Jimmy Carter, this is a blissful, 220-page-long poem. It’s a joy to read; I just want to be clear about that. And I did, and once again I left it quite late to read, and I finished it about two hours ago, and I’m still in the morning here. 

But I want to talk about story, and I think we’re—you’re not supposed to tell stories, according to people you quote from the tradition, until after the first frost and before the frost has ended in the spring. I think we’re past that. But let me get to the heart of this. Your story—you were adopted, you weren’t even told you were Native American; this was a self-discovery, you got to the roots of your family and your great-great-great-grandmother, whose name I’m forgetting right now—ah, Tsupu, who then got christened as Maria Chekka. 

And you rediscover this community, and you are now the chairman of this federated community, basically the remnants, really, or the survivors, of the largest indigenous population north of Mexico at the time when California was being formed. And a community that survives now, as do many—because they actually have a casino and some economic model, basically a community of 1,400 people. 

But it’s such a rich history. In addition to the history of Native Americans, as with every other origin story, I’ve lived in this area around Sausalito, Marin County, the Bay Area for a good chunk of my life, ever since I went to graduate school at Berkeley. But I learned more about—you know, I knew Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma; my own mother came to visit me, and I thought I knew Tomales Bay and Point Reyes and everything. But I learned more, really, about what California was all about and where it came from, from your book. 

And so this is a book of discovery by you of your own origin story. It’s a history that was taken away from Native Americans because of missionary-forced assimilation, genocide against Native Americans. So let me turn it over to you, and tell me why this book, and your own personal story.

GS: Ah, well, thank you so much for having me, Bob. And as you were praising the book, I just thought, well, I’ll just sit here and let you talk. But, ah, here I am. Well, first of all, in my own case I want to remind people—and there’s a case before the Supreme Court right now that’s relevant—until the Indian Child Welfare Act in the mid-seventies, 25% of Indian children throughout this country were put up for adoption and taken from their families. I was adopted in the early fifties, and my mother was white, and she was a Jewish girl. And nice Jewish girls in the fifties didn’t get pregnant, and certainly not by dark men. And so on the birth certificate, in those days, Bob, they put the race of the parents; and for my father it only had “unknown – non-white.”

But I began the long journey. And I was adopted by a family, a Christian or Catholic family, and then they ended up having their own kids, and I was put out on different ranches and farms. And ironically, I grew up with a lot of the Indian people in the area, who were my relatives; I grew up with a lot of Indian people and Mexican American people and immigrant people. But I always thought they just assumed that the father being non-white, which it said, was—and the rumor was that the father was so-called “Mexican.” Well, I was 19 when I found out who my father was. And he had a Spanish last name, which is pretty typical for a lot of California Indians. 

But basically what began—and I was very familiar even before that with a lot of the Indian people, and for some reason the older Indian people in the community would always talk to me. And because I was an outsider in so many ways, and didn’t know where I belonged, I really listened to the stories—who was related to who—to see even as a kid how I might fit in, or where I might fit in. So my ear was trained, you might say, to listen. 

And then, you know, once I found out how I was connected, it became a story in so many ways, Bob, that’s emblematic of all of us, of colonized people—we’re a colonized people who have been taken from the landscape. The landscape was our sacred text, our Bible; it’s how we knew who we were. An outcropping of rocks, a certain pond or stream, the shape of a mountain told stories, and reminded us who we were. And then you can imagine, in a very short time, us being taken into the missions, being enslaved by the Mexicans. The first piece of legislation that California enacted was the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which legalized slavery here, and was not repealed until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. 

So we were taken from our native villages, our nations, taken into the missions; we were enslaved. And then the landscape—the ways in which we knew and remembered ourselves—was torn up. It would be as if your Bible, if the Torah had been burnt, and all that was left was a couple pages. So here we come, 200 years later, trying to find out and reconnect. Now, luckily, many of the stories, some of the languages, have survived. But it’s, again, a way of reconnecting to the landscape. 

And the importance, I think, not just for us, but from what we’re remembering from our ancestors and from the landscape itself, is that more than ever now, we need to go back to an ethic and aesthetics that our indigenous ancestors had, which was a “we” philosophy of the world instead of an us/them philosophy. When people get colonized and taken over, all of a sudden you fight back, you have to fight back, and we all get caught up in this us/them thing, which as you can see now is perhaps coming to its tragic end in this world. But we have to, again, try to talk to the landscape, reimagine ourselves connected to one another and place. And that’s what I’m doing in so many ways in this book.

RS: Well, you’re doing much more than that. You’re telling the story, the true story, of settler colonialism in America. I don’t know if you want to use those words; Roxanne Dunbar, who’s written a couple of books on this, does. 

But we all—I shouldn’t say “we all,” but certainly white people like myself, raised even in the Bronx, where we had a lot of different people, different colors and so forth—were raised on the war between the virtuous cowboy and Indian, “savage” Indian, the “savage” is in the Declaration of Independence, it’s in our—right there in our foundational texts as an image of the other, of the savage lumped in with Black people also as slaves. 

And I think what you do in finding your own family is show us this humanity of the original people here: their respect for their environment, for the landscape, for the animals. And you should say something about, you know, humans in relation to animals. You have a marvelous chapter where you have an oak tree suddenly becoming Oprah. And the oak tree speaking, and telling us what we need to know, and uniting us as Oprah at her best does; she unites people. And you say in the book you were actually addicted to Oprah’s shows. And what she does is show a common humanity, beyond race, racial divisions. 

And you have this great chapter where you really tell us—as you do in the entire book—why we need to know our history. And our history did not begin with the Mayflower, you know. And your discovery—that’s why I brought it up—you personally, as someone who had been denied that history—and you haven’t said anything about your own academic background, your graduate days at Stanford. Introduce yourself properly—I didn’t do that. But you come from a very strong academic background, and you bring that to bear on a study of a history that has been deliberately obliterated from us, or denied us—all of us. 

GS: Well, yeah, as I jokingly say, Bob, nobody knew there were California Indians until there were casinos. And the whole stereotype, of course, of the Indian person is the Plains Indian, riding a pinto horse, chasing buffalos. And all of that, you know, started with a great PR system, with Buffalo Bill; he used that, and then of course early Hollywood picked up the wild Plains Indians. 

But the truth of the matter is, that was the most sparsely populated area of this country. The thing is that the Plains Indians gave the settlers, the colonizers, the most trouble. They had organized warfare, and of course the Europeans and the settlers always, as all of us do, tend to see the world in terms of what we value. And they valued organized warfare, which the Plains Indians had. 

Here in California, where there were so many people living so close together, speaking so many different languages, we had a much more subtle form of warfare: poisoning, and what you might want to call witchcraft, or things like that. And the ethnographers classified that as cultures predicated on black magic and fear, where in fact it was predicated on profound respect. Because you didn’t mess [with] or hurt any other animal, other tree, other person without knowing that whatever you did would have consequences on you and your family, some kind of poison. We thought here physical warfare was the lowest form of warfare, because if you had to hit someone, you had no spiritual power, and anybody could do anything to you without retribution. 

It was a great system, and it explains how, again, so many different people, speaking so many different languages, took care of a landscape, we know, for 10,000 years or more. But when you—I don’t like to give year numbers, Bob; we say we were here time immemorial, people say well, Greg, did you come down the Bering Strait? And I always say no, but we have our bearings straight. 

So anyway, we had a very complicated and subtle way of living for forever here. And part of it is how do we—how do I, in coming to terms with my own identity, how do I rethink that? Now, yes, I did, after being a rough kid on the streets and all of that, end up at UCLA and then Stanford, and then became a professor at UCLA, which is I believe around the time I met you. 

And you know, my academic work was there, but it was always in the service of passing on my own enlightenment and my own—what I discovered, and how to help others discover that, and claim their identities as a way to, you might say, counter what you call the settler colonialism; counter what has happened to us in so many ways. And as I keep saying, more than ever, I think we need this kind of relationship, this kind of dialogue with the land and with one another. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

The prophecies in my tribe, incidentally, Bob, were amazing. Mabel McKay, the great medicine woman who I was fortunate to have spent so much time with, 40 years ago on the way back from a lecture at Stanford—she was what we call a dreamer, or prophet, and I was driving her back to the reservation. And she looked out the window, and she, we were passing some hills, and she said, “Everything’s going to go dry; everything’s going to burn up, and we’re coming to that point now. That’s my latest dream.” 

And of course I was a much younger man, and I said, well, Mabel, what do we do? And she laughed and she said, “That’s cute: what do we do.” And I said, no, I’m serious. And as we say in the theater, she took a silent beat, and she looked at me and she said, “You live the best way you know how. What else?” And the best way is, again, attempting to reclaim a history that can teach us something about survival. 

RS: Well, and speaking of that, you know, we’re doing this, having this conversation a day after the UN issued a very depressing report—quite a, a very serious report, on the global climate crisis. And you know, in reading your book—and people forget that. There was a complex civilization, not only here but throughout the world, of indigenous people. It was true in Cambodia where they had, you know, complex irrigation systems and so forth, far superior to that of England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. And they learned how to deal with nature and with reality and with shortages. 

And as you point out, on the Central Coast of California, which is now kind of becoming rapidly a billionaire’s playground, where certainly overconsumption will be indulged, you know, we had a pretty crowded Central California population. And in your federation, I believe you say there were I think 14 different tribes of 500 to 2,000 people. But in the whole region of San Francisco, Sausalito, Berkeley, that whole area—you had dozens of languages. 

And yet people managed to coexist, to interact, and preserve the environment. Know how to fish, when to fish, what to grow, how to use the shrubbery that was there before it gets violated by foreign shrubbery coming in, and so forth. So there was a balance, and it was a pretty intensely populated area. And that is an important lesson to convey to people. That this destruction of the Earth that’s called modernism is what has really brought us to the possibility, if not of war and nuclear war—which now seems to be in the offing once again—you know, it’s this environmental crisis we’re in. 

GS: Well, yeah, and—

RS: And tell me about acorns. I love the whole description—no, really, the idea that you don’t necessarily have to have huge wheat fields, or you could have them. But this is a people who took something that was there, the acorn, and made it into a staple. And in ingenuous ways, managed to support a pretty substantial population on, yes, fishing, acorns and what have you.

GS: Well, the acorn—yeah, there are several different kinds of acorns. But the acorn, you know, in its raw state is toxic, is poisonous. So we learned to leach the acorn and make acorn meal, acorn bread, all kinds of things with that, and it became a staple. The tan oak, the best oak, ironically, became the most affected with the sudden oak death. And so it’s interesting.

But touching on what you said, and the effects of colonization, Bob, just to put this in perspective—and you’re right; we did, there were so many languages. And the old people often spoke 10 languages or more, Bob, often as different as Mandarin is from English. And you know, here I have a Ph.D. and I can hardly speak three languages. 

So, again, we honored the storytelling in ways that working and being a part of a landscape became sustainable. To put the tragedy in perspective, at the time of contact with my people, who are Coast Miwok from the Marin area and then Southern Pomo from Southern Sonoma County, there were about 20,000 of us at the time of contact. And today, of the 1,478 enrolled members of my tribe, all of us are descendants of 14 survivors, all of whom were women. Fourteen survivors. And again, sadly, this story—as you’ve talked to Ben Madley—is a story that you see throughout much of California. 

RS: We should give him proper credit. Benjamin Madley is one of the leading scholars on the genocide—I think it’s a word he’s willing to use—against Native Americans in California in the 19th century. 

GS: Yes, yeah. During the Gold Rush. What he doesn’t touch on—you know, he touches on that period between the Gold Rush, basically the Gold Rush and California becoming a state, 1847 to 1872 or -3, I think. But we were decimated before that in the missions with diseases, and then with the Mexican rancho period before that, before the Bear Flag Revolt. So there were, you know, waves of disease from which we had no immunity, rape and torture and other sorts of things, even before that. He basically just—well, not “just,” but it’s so important—he captures what happened during that period when California became a state, and the squatters and the Gold Rush folks came in and there was, you know, federally financed vigilante groups to kill us.

But in any event, what happened was, also in that very short time, the grizzly bear disappeared; the water table in our area dropped 50 feet in about a 50- or 70-year period; and 95 to 97% percent of the original redwood forest was chopped down to build San Francisco. So just imagine the—both the landscape and the people, the decimation. 

RS: What time period was that?

GS: That’s—well, again, when they began—they began logging in the late forties, 1840s. But the Mexicans and the Spanish before them began clearing the landscape and dynamiting, bombing water, draining a lot of the water for agriculture. That said, we have to remember, we now tell stories—what’s become emblematic of California are the golden, rolling hills; there were no golden, rolling hills before. Those, what we had, bunch grasses here, got a little lighter, drier in the late summer and fall, but the hills weren’t golden; the hills are golden as a consequence of introduced oat grass and annuals that came with the settlers’ animals’ dung, seeds from Europe came here. 

And it just totally, in a very short time—a matter of 20, 30 years, Bob—transformed the landscape, the hills to what we see today. There was no controlled burning, which means a lot of the brush grew up, you know. When the Spanish came, the first two laws that they imposed upon us was a law against bathing—they didn’t want us to bathe, because nudity, they didn’t like nudity—and a law against burning; we were doing controlled burning, and they thought we were burning the hills so that their cattle and horses couldn’t eat. But we’ve learned differently today. But again, the way in which the landscape was transformed from what it was to what it is today—and again, as you alluded to Central California, the greed that is further decimating the landscape. 

RS: Well, in the name of modernization—you talk about the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; there’s so much rich history in this. And I know you think I’m very political, and you don’t want this to be a political gook, or that’s not its purpose–it’s a love poem, it’s a memoir, it’s everything. And I don’t want to take anything away from the book. 

But politics does emerge here. And it really has to do with the arrogance of the dominant culture. You know, whether it came from Mexico, Spain, came from England or what have you, Germany; a lot of the immigrants to America were from Germany and so forth. And in that arrogance, the assumption is they can control the fate of the Earth, and yet be greedy in the max. That’s the assumption. 

And what is painted—what we know about Native culture is basically it was a conservationist culture. Out of necessity; it was to conserve the land that you have, to respect it, and respect the animals that were there, and blur the distinction between the land, the animals and the humans, and act in some kind of harmony. That’s, I think, the big theme of your book in a way.

GS: Well, exactly, and rediscovering my own story—that’s exactly, you did a wonderful summary right there. Because again, it’s about a kind of looking at the world in a different way. The European model, remember, is one of the great chain of being, a hierarchy where you have God on top, and then the king and then the queen, and of course then man, and a woman below man, and so on and so forth. 

For us, everything had power. Anything living, the smallest thing could have power—a pebble or a stone. You respected everything; there was an equality of life, everything had a power and a place. When you get a hierarchy, as you do in Europe—and by the way, never apologize about being political, Bob; everything is political. And you’re absolutely right, the implied politic here, in all of my writing, is that greed and those sorts of things, the arrogance, will only doom you and all of us in the long run. It’s not sustainable; greed is not sustainable, it’s a cancer.

So, again, in the book, so much of what I’m writing about and discovering is my relationship and ultimately my respect, and the ways in which I’m humbled in front of all of life, and what I’m discovering and finding and dialoguing. Ultimately, I hope the book becomes a model for how we can begin to dialogue, not as I do with my story, but all of us with our stories. So once again, we can feel a connection to the world around us that’s responsible. And, of course, ultimately then political, because if you’re responsible for the world around you, Bob, you’re going to advocate for that. 

RS: So tell me, what is the future of Native American culture? The statistics of current, you know, members of your tribe and elsewhere—you know, the statistics of people who end up in jail, who end up dysfunctional in so many ways. And you know, it takes a real toll. On the other hand, we have these zones of prosperity of these casinos. And I’m not, you know, against casinos, but it’s kind of an odd mixture that really the only way that the Native American community has any leverage is finally the government conceded they had the right to host gambling casinos, and gave them some measure of economic—gave you and your community some measure of economic stability and clout, no?

GS: Ah, very important. You’ve pushed me onto my podium, so let me stand on it a moment here. I, as you know, was an academic, or am an academic and a writer, a scholar. And Bob, I have never been in a casino. In fact, I have that kind of arrogant view that some of us have, that casinos are kind of déclassé, and whatever. And when we tried other forms—we had no land; we were restored, I coauthored a bill to get our rights back as a federally recognized tribe. And then we were restored as a federally recognized tribe, but the government didn’t give us any money for a land base—that is, a reservation, where we would have our sovereign land base. 

So we tried different things, you know, working with different organizations, and of course then everybody began to discuss casinos, and I thought, I’m out. But then I thought—I thought the impossible: could this be something that could be a platform for social justice and environmental stewardship? Could we transform the workplace with great wages and benefits for all people? Could we—since we had a very good, lucrative location close to the Bay Area—could we use our resources not just to lift our people, but to lift all people, and to create a model?

We opened our casino, Bob, eight and a half years ago, and 10 years ago almost 80% of our kids—certainly 40, 50% of our kids were not graduating from high school. Today, everybody graduates from high school. Everybody can go to college; tuition, room and board free; we pay for that. We’ve taken care of our people. In the workplace, we have 2,000 people who work for us; all you have to do is work 20 hours or more a week, and you get the Kaiser gold Cadillac plan. You pay nothing out of your paycheck for full coverage, $10 deductible for brain surgery or aspirin—I probably need the former—and $2,000 deductible annual dentist. We feed you, you have vision care. We have Spanish to English classes, English to Spanish classes, literacy classes. And we take care of the families.

And in turn, we have in the last eight and a half years, given nearly $60 million to the environmental causes. Our mission is environmental stewardship and social justice, and we’ve given nearly $60 million to those various causes, including creating precedent-setting co-management agreements with the federal government for national parks. You know Point Reyes National Seashore—we just recently signed a 50/50 co-management agreement where we will work with the federal government to restore the landscape there, maintain it and make all decisions regarding that.

So we are doing great things. I know that many people were against the casino, and it sounded antithetical that you would have a casino that was about environmental stewardship and social justice. But we’ve been able to show that we have walked the talk, and will continue to do so. We have resources that have enabled us with great power to, once again, try to create a model for all for social justice, and how you might use your resources to transform the world and make the world a better place. 

Certainly the world around us; I can’t fix everything in the world, but I can create a model. As I like to say, I’d like to see other organizations, Amazon and the big organizations, give as much money, or percentage of their earnings, as we do. The world would change in a heartbeat, Bob.

RS: Well, there you got it. I was going to go on longer, but I think you’ve covered it. We just heard from the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton [Rancheria]—did I get it right?

GS: Rancheria, but that’s all right. Names.

RS: OK. And it’s Dr. Greg Sarris. And I want to really push this book, because I found it a joy to read, as well as a great learning experience. I thought—I mean, I’ve lived in this area. I lived in Bolinas, and I dug a house out of the dirt on the plateau there, you know. But I knew nothing about it, and when I read your book I thought, where the hell have I been? Marshall and Point Reyes, and—I mean, I’ve spent decades in that place. And so the book—I mean, it’s just incredible. And I just want to get people to read it. I think it doesn’t come out until the beginning of April, right? 

GS: Yeah, April 5th.

RS: Yeah, and it’s published by Heyday, which does a really good line of publishing books on Native American history—particularly on, as was pointed out by Dr. Sarris, we focus a lot—not to disrespect the Plains Indians, but we focus a lot on that, because Hollywood focused on that. But actually the most—well, populated, would you say—wasn’t the largest numbers—

GS: Yes, populous, yes.  

RS: Yeah—was in California. And it’s an incredibly rich history, and you are a great writer; that’s no secret to people who have read your other books. called Becoming Story: A Journey among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors. And I don’t know whether to call it a long poem or what it is, but it’s incredibly moving. And so place your preorder wherever you get it, and it comes out in April, but I’m sure you’ll be able to get it in advance.

And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these shows. Joshua Scheer who’s our executive producer, who lined up this and lines up all of our guests, and tells me where I’m going wrong. Natasha Hakimi, who writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And the JWK Foundation, in memory of Jean Stein, a terrific writer and someone I know who was very sensitive on this issue. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 

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