A group trying to stop a casino in Rohnert Park says the chairman of the local tribe has no Indian blood — and it wants the Bureau of Indian Affairs to remove him.
That leader, Greg Sarris, the chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, has shot back with charges of politics and said the group has no legal leg to stand on.
The dispute centers on the Graton Rancheria’s efforts to build an urban casino in Rohnert Park on the northern edge of the densely populated Bay Area. But it also touches on how casino politics in California are inextricably tied with racial politics, not only in the present but deep into the state’s past.
On Monday, the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition sent a detailed letter to Larry Echo Hawk, the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, attacking Sarris’ ancestral claims.
Sarris is not only a tribal chairman but also a professor of Native American Studies at Sonoma State University, an author and an outspoken advocate for the rights of American Indians. The Graton Rancheria has been locked in a struggle for years with Stop the Casino 101 and some local leaders in its push to build an urban casino in Rohnert Park.
The Feb. 8 letter asks that the Bureau of Indian Affairs “review the information in this mailing, and if applicable, de-certify Mr. Greg Sarris as Chairman.” The five-page letter cites detailed Census and genealogical information that they say shows Sarris is of mixed white, Filipino and possibly Mexican and Black ancestry — but “possesses no Native American blood, and specifically, no Coast Miwok and/or Southern Pomo blood.”
Copies were also sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, local Rep. Lynn Woolsey and others.
“What we really want to do is get the truth out there,” said Stop the Casino’s Marilee Montgomery, who signed the letter. “That’s all we’re doing. There has been a lot of misrepresentation from the very beginning.”
But the Graton’s attorney, John Maier, cited the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, which he said clearly prevents the BIA from doing what Montgomery asks.
“The bureau has no authority to do that,” Maier said. “The tribes determine their own membership. That’s the end of the story.”
Montgomery shot back with the example of Jeff Wilson, who the BIA removed as the head of another Northern California tribe, the Cloverdale Pomo, in 1994—long after the Martinez decision—on the grounds that he was not a legitimate member of the tribe. She backed up this claim with a pair of published stories, though Montgomery also acknowledged that the BIA rarely takes this step. The BIA did not return a call seeking comment.
Sarris also says he has numerous blood cousins in the tribe, and offered to take a blood test to show that he does have Coast Miwok ancestry. He characterized the letter as political ploy.
“For them to go after me, that’s a way of delegitimizing the tribe, that’s what it’s all about,” Sarris said. “I’m an easy target for them, or so they think.”
The Graton Rancheria consists of descendants of two groups, the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, who lived together in the area around the modern-day cities of Petaluma and Santa Rosa. The group was one of dozens that lost federal recognition in 1958, but they regained it in 2000.
The tribe began working with Las Vegas-based Stations Casino in 2003 in an effort to get a gaming compact and build a casino in the area — a lucrative prospect, given that it would be one of a very few near the huge population centers of the Bay Area.
In 2007, Capitol Weekly reported on allegations by local Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, that the Schwarzenegger administration was in secret talks with the tribe over a compact. Both Huffman and the administration declined to comment for this article.
Last year, Huffman proposed ACR 56, which “calls upon the Governor to refrain from negotiating a tribal-state gaming compact until the land on which such gaming will occur has been taken into trust for the tribe.” The measure was clearly tied to the casino effort in his district, but it died in the Senate Governmental Organization Committee in September without a vote.
As leader of the Graton Rancheria, Sarris took aim at the measure, calling it discriminatory and accusing Huffman of trying to “bluff the Legislature.”
Sarris is known for being outspoken, both in his leadership of the tribe and his work as a college professor and author. He’s often described as a “forceful” personality, and as a workout buff who looks far younger than the 58 years old he turns this week. He earned a PhD. in literature in 1988 from Stanford University and went on to teach at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA. Currently, he is the Endowed Chair in Native American studies, a spot made possible by a $2.5 million grant from the Graton Rancheria.
In her letter to the BIA, Montgomery herself notes that Sarris accomplished all this from quite humble beginnings. He was born to an unwed 17-year-old mother who died days later. He was raised by adoptive white parents. His claim to Indian ancestry is connected to the man who he said is his father, Emilio Hilario, who is “of Coast Miwok and Filipino descent,” according to Sarris’ Wikipedia page. Hilario died in 1983.
Montgomery said that her interest in Sarris’ ancestry began years ago, when she said several Indians, including some members of the Graton Rancheria, raised questions about Sarris’ status as an Indian. In her letter, Montgomery said that Sarris’ own mother claimed the father was Mexican. She said she got the initial genealogical information she needed from Sarris’ own books and other writings.
Sarris said the truth is far more complicated.
For much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the surviving California Indians got racially mixed up with other disadvantaged minorities, especially Mexicans and Filipinos — both of which are part of Sarris’ background. For another, Sarris said, California Indians were not even considered citizens until 1924.
“If you were Indian here, especially a girl, you could get raped, and you did get raped left and right, and you had no recourse in the courts,” Sarris said. “What could you do, especially if you already had a Latin last name? You say you were Mexican or Italian or whatever you could get away with.”
Sarris said that the claims against him also are tied up in local politics.
Petaluma city councilman Mike Healy is taking a resolution to a meeting of the Mayors’ and Councilmembers’ Association of Sonoma County on Thursday, which calls for an advisory vote of the local population before a casino could be built. The resolution is similar to what Huffman was calling for in ACR 56.
Healy currently is running for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors against Pam Torliat, who beat Healy to become mayor of Petaluma in 2006. He also is active in Stop the Casino 101.
“It seems interesting that this came out now,” Sarris said.