Old Man Coyote Dreams of Slots

Maxwell Klinger | October 22, 2013 | Story Politics

"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 Pechanga.net, 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."

When you first set eyes on the tribal leader, it is virtually impossible not to have some variation of the same thought: This guy’s an Indian? At 61, Sarris looks more like a Sun Valley–vacationing CEO—one who diets, tans, and skis profusely—than like a wizened old chief. He wears a kind of urban-rustic uniform: crisp crimson button-down, jeans creased down the front, shiny black cowboy boots. He doesn’t appear the least bit Native American—at least not in the stereotypical sense. “If you’re wondering,” he says coyly, “I’m part Jewish, part Filipino, part Indian—less than a quarter on my father’s side.”

I first meet Sarris at another lecture hall, this one at Sonoma State University, where he is a chaired professor of Native American studies and the school’s highest-paid teacher (a result of a large endowment from his tribe). He has just wrapped up a three-hour lecture on California’s rancheria system. As his students file out, we take seats in the first row beneath the glow of a giant projector screen. He begins to talk about his life, the topography of which is as rocky as his tribe’s.

Sarris was born at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital on February 12, 1952, to a 17-year-old Laguna Beach debutante named Bunny Hartman, whose family had whisked her up north for a secret pregnancy. He was immediately put up for adoption and taken in by George and Mary Sarris, a local couple who were having trouble conceiving. His biological mother, Bunny, passed away a few days later after a botched blood transfusion. “Her grave is there [in Santa Rosa] to this day,” he says. “Not even a proper gravestone, just an upside-down horseshoe.”

Sarris says that his adoptive father was verbally and physically abusive and that he would beg his mother to ship him off to stay with family friends for protection. (George and Mary divorced in 1964.) By his teenage years, he was roughnecking around Santa Rosa, working on dairy farms, pouring concrete, and attending school only sporadically.

When Sarris began hanging around the hardscrabble neighborhoods of south Santa Rosa, he happened to befriend several Native American families. It was the Indian tradition of storytelling—“just the whole sitting on the porch and talking thing”—that got him interested in writing and eventually enticed him back to school. “Before that, my life goals were to be either a dairy man or a drug pusher,” he says. After improving his high school grades, he got into Santa Rosa Junior College, then transferred to UCLA, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1976.

It was at Stanford, where he went on to earn a PhD in modern thought, that Sarris underwent the kind of identity crisis that turns many adopted kids into amateur detectives. At 31, still a fresh-faced grad student, Sarris tracked his dead biological mother’s lineage to a country-clubbing Orange County family that ran in the same circle as Elizabeth Taylor. His biological father, it surfaced, was a part-Filipino, part-Indian boy named Emilio Hilario Jr., a Laguna High football star who would later play at USC. Sarris tells me that Junior, as he was called, felt that he was preternaturally unlucky and would cut the number 13 into his arm during class. He was “dark, handsome, and virile, with a masochistic side,” Sarris says. He was also a womanizer and, later, an alcoholic.

By the time that Sarris traced his Native American roots back to Southern California, Junior had already died of a heart attack. His biological grandfather, Hilario Sr., immediately pegged Sarris for a kinsman when he came knocking on his door. Sarris gradually began meeting other members of the family—which extends all the way to Sonoma County—and learned that his great-great-grandfather had been a Miwok medicine man named Tom Smith. A cousin in the family started calling Sarris “Junior-Junior” because of his spitting-image resemblance to his father.

In 1992, when Sarris, now 40, returned to UCLA to take a professorship in the English department, his newfound family received word that a tribe from Cloverdale had convinced Japanese investors to build a casino on Tomales Bay. That was Coast Miwok land, Graton land, as spelled out by the 1910 Federal Rancheria Act, so Sarris’s new tribespeople quickly organized to stop it. They elected Sarris tribal chairman in a landslide vote. The publicity that he brought to the clash (as a promising young writer in L.A., he’d become acquainted with a growing group of entertainment heavyweights, like Robert Redford and Michael Bennett, the famed Broadway choreographer) gave the Japanese investors cold feet, and the casino effort was nixed.

At this point, Sarris began to pursue the tribe’s first order of business: getting its federal status restored. Throughout the ’90s, political momentum had been growing to re-recognize disenfranchised tribes and allow them to reestablish their rancherias. Sarris knew the power of a well-crafted narrative. With the help of powerful Hollywood friends, he began petitioning legislators with sympathetic views. He found eager supporters in Senator Feinstein and Representative Lynn Woolsey, who sponsored the Graton Rancheria’s federal restoration bill in Congress.

Sarris vividly remembers the day in December 2000, when it all came together. He was sitting in twilight traffic in L.A., when his phone rang: “It’s my attorney saying that our sovereignty has just been signed into law by Bill Clinton, weeks before he’ll leave office.” The news was so overwhelming that he had to pull off Wilshire Boulevard. He flew home to deliver the news to the tribe in person, and they celebrated in familiar fashion: praying, eating, telling stories till dawn.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this moment for a tribe. American Indian law is bafflingly complex, and very gray in places, but there is no question that the conferring of sovereignty comes with enormous potential benefits. (And these benefits are not easily acquired: No other tribe has had its sovereignty restored through an act of Congress since that day in 2000.) The 1,300 members of the Graton Rancheria could now qualify for federal aid, distribute government benefits as they deemed fit, police themselves, and, of course, given the right circumstances, build their own casino.

Only, they still didn’t have any land.

Page three: "I'll take the whole city council out for prime rib if we ever see a dime."

Rohnert Park might seem like a strange place to erect a temple of Vegas glitz. It takes me 20 minutes of U-turns to realize that the downtown I'm looking for doesn't exist. Rohnert Park was a seed that the farm until the early ’60s, when it was turned into a patchwork of orderly suburban subdivisions. Instead of a central community hearth around which the town might gather, there are strip malls and industrial parks.

I drive over to the residential east side of town to meet Chip Worthington, the pastor of a Pentecostal church and the Graton Casino’s most vocal opponent. As founder of the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, a self-financed group of gadflies that’s been fighting the casino for a decade (including filing a lawsuit against Governor Jerry Brown last year that was recently rejected in Superior Court), Worthington has become locally famous for supplying brash sound bites to reporters. “I’ll take the whole city council out to prime rib if we ever see a dime of money” from casino revenues, he tells me. He is, I think, dead serious.

We sit in a spot of shade in back of the church, and Worthington presents his case: The city is going to get fleeced, the politicians are all corrupt cowards, and the Graton Rancheria largesse is just graft for the county. A lady in a pink bathrobe walks by with her dog, and Worthington asks her what she thinks of the casino. “Not here,” she mumbles. When he starts in about how “gambling is legalized slavery” that will have residents, local college students, and politicians “all addicted,” I can feel a chasm opening in our dialogue—something coming from a deeper place, somewhere epistemological. The question of whether we ought to try and do right by these historically oppressed people—give Indians their own opportunity for self-reliance—seems beside the point to Worthington. He doesn’t see Sarris’s tribe as disenfranchised. To him, as soon as they chose to become casino operators, they crossed a moral threshold. Now they’re the ones doing the disenfranchising.

Before the Graton Indians received their federal restoration, they claimed that they had no intention of opening a casino. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that they received such staunch support from legislators like Feinstein and Woolsey. But once the legislation was passed, the tribe, with Sarris as ringleader, quickly changed tack. Soon they were visited by suitors from Las Vegas, all interested in partnering on a new casino in San Francisco’s backyard. One by one, the gaming moguls came through Sarris’s living room with their pitches: the Maloof brothers, an executive from Harrah’s (now Caesar’s), Steve Wynn, and Frank Fertitta III, CEO of Station Casinos and owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As Sarris laid out his preconditions for a deal—generous revenue sharing with local government, exclusive contracts with labor unions, green construction—he watched each of them walk out as eagerly as they’d come in. Those were not just preconditions, they told him—they were anti-capitalist ideals. Sarris feared that he’d overplayed his hand. Then, just hours after the meeting with Station Casinos, he received a call from Fertitta: They had a deal.

The tribe’s 2003 partnership with Station Casinos gave Sonoma—a county with some of the most prohibitive growth policies in the state— collective arrhythmia. Vociferous concerns about traffic, crime, environmental impacts, zoning controls, and stress on local safety infrastructures began popping up in editorial pages, stump speeches, and the minutes of city council meetings. In the North Bay, where progressive boosterism is a kind of neighborhood blood sport, these concerns often took the form of an ideological outrage that continues to this day. Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents District 2, told me that the casino “contravenes all the urban and land planning that my constituents have been working on for so many years.” There were concerns about the California tiger salamander, an endangered species whose habitat falls within the casino’s footprint. At one point, Stop the Casino 101 released results of a poll it had conducted indicating that 68 percent of the county was opposed to the casino.

But each of those objections fell gradually by the wayside. The main reason: Rohnert Park’s proximity to a population center of 7.15 million people. The grand design of the Graton Casino, which is closer by half to San Francisco than the region’s next largest gaming halls—River Rock in Geyserville, Cache Creek in Yolo County, and Thunder Valley near Roseville—is to lure gamblers from all over the Bay Area. In a statement provided by a Station Casinos spokeswoman, Fertitta said that he had long been “impressed by Sarris’s vision and passion for his tribe and their desire for their self-reliance,” but also acknowledged that the market held “tremendous potential.”

The Graton Resort & Casino stands to make around $300 million a year according to conservative industry estimates; looser prognostications have it as high as $420 million. If neighbors refused to believe for nearly a decade that bucolic, enlightened Sonoma County would ever accede to the uncouth business of a mega-casino, those numbers should have convinced them otherwise. A significant percentage—up to 15 percent—of that haul will go to local municipalities, which have been starved for revenues during the recession. When casino dollars bring a windfall of cash to services like education, public health, and police and fire departments, gaming seems less like a vice and more like a taxable form of entertainment. For the elected leaders of Sonoma County, who were eventually won over by Sarris and his Vegas partners, the attraction of this particular arrangement was impossible to deny.

Page four: "This is about resilience."

The Graton Rancheria offices are in a stucco-and-glass Rubik’s Cube of a building on an industrial parkway south of the casino. The space is home not only to administrative offices, but also to the Tribal TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program. The multistory facility includes a health clinic, social workers’ offices, a childcare program, and a computer lab. This is no shabby warren of bureaucratic stasis. The place is technological. The building’s large windowpanes are smoky dark, like a limo’s. The computer room hums.

I meet Sarris on the top floor in a conference room with a large, modern, wood table in the center and pitchers of iced tea and a plate of spring rolls on a side banquette. Views of surrounding foothills are framed by colorful vegetation sprouting up from a native-species garden on the terrace. Sarris, who drives a Lexus hybrid, asks me, “Do I look like the type of person who’s ever been to a casino? I didn’t have the slightest interest in gaming. This is about resilience.”

For the first time in centuries, the Graton Rancheria Indians have the political and economic might to control their own destiny. Ever in professorial mode, Sarris details his people’s legacy of servitude in Northern California, under Franciscan missionaries first, then Mexican ranchers, Russian fur traders, and Swiss and Italian dairy owners. Indians felled the lumber that built San Francisco not once, but twice—the second time after the 1906 Great Fire. Having spent the better part of this state’s history working toward someone else’s commercial goals, they finally have the chance to work toward their own. “Funny,” Sarris says. “Until casinos, no one knew there were any Indians left in California. Now it’s all they want to talk about.”

Sarris won’t discuss the internal tribal discussions that led to the decision to pursue a casino—coolly, he tells me that tribal decisions are a private matter—but in hindsight, the outcome seems obvious. There really is only one proven way for a new tribe to guarantee its long-term survival: gaming.

And sure enough, the 2003 agreement with Station Casinos has turned out to be a real chicken dinner for the tribe—and for the city and county encircling it. Up front, Sarris secured a plump $200 million pre-development package from Station Casinos that allowed the tribe to start shopping for land and begin drafting a revenue-sharing plan with Rohnert Park. In that plan, the tribe agreed to pay Sonoma County and Rohnert Park guaranteed sums of $5 million and $9 million, respectively. In addition, both stand to receive $12 million a year if the tribe hits its revenue projections. Plus, Sarris devised a special fund for Sonoma County’s Parks and Open Space that could reach up to $25 million annually. That money, within a few years, could give the county the biggest open space budget in the country. Sarris says that he wants to use it to build a system of organic gardens for low-income families. There are additional funds for mitigating gambling addiction, for an environmental center, and for revenue sharing with non-gaming tribes in Sonoma County. The total package could reach up to $75 million a year.

These seem like plainly well-intentioned aims, but it’s unclear whether things are ever that simple with Sarris. I occasionally wonder if, as his tribal nickname suggests, I am being trickstered. Sarris is an eloquent speaker, expelling long, fluid disquisitions that weave together multiple layers of anecdotes, statistics, and superlatives. But at times I wonder if there is a false forthcomingness to his soliloquies: Are they rhetorical smoke screens? A way of obstructing dialogue? Of controlling the message? I begin to wonder if this is some kind of tell. Surely, defining oneself as a “cultural loner” and “displaced soul” has been the grist of many a great artist—and many a great politician. But Sarris takes pains to insist that he is not a politician but a community leader, and an accidental one at that.

“I have a disdain for power plays and politicians who are all running around trying to get points,” Sarris tells me, looking like he’s just put a battery in his mouth. “They enter a room and look around, and points are the first thing they think about.”

Within the Native American community, Sarris’s leadership has earned him nothing but laurels. As tribes have built more and more casinos throughout the past quarter century, the money pouring into tribal coffers has tended to have a splintering effect, leading to leadership coups, family feuds, and allegations of diluted Indian blood. The economic incentives for disenrollment—the punitive expulsion of a tribe member from the federal tribal rolls—are eminently clear: The smaller the tribe, the larger each slice of the casino pie. Sarris advocated for the Graton Rancheria’s constitution to formally ban disenrollment, adding a kicker in the tribe’s 20-year state compact that will levy fines against the tribe if it ever defies that commitment. Some Indian law analysts hope that this policy will become tribal protocol nationwide.

It may seem odd to compare Sarris to great historical Indian leaders like Geronimo, Quanah Parker, and Russell Means, but that’s exactly the context in which tribal experts speak of him. There’s a wistful music to the way those names are pronounced by Native Americans, as if they’re patiently awaiting the person who will revitalize their legacies. “We don’t have a lot of leaders who have national recognition like they did in the ’60s and ’70s,” says David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. “I’m hoping that Sarris’s ideas become a precedent for the next generation.”

When I ask Sarris if he’d rather be known in the end for his writing— he has authored four books and edited several others—or his tribal leadership, his answer seems almost resigned: “I’ll always go with writing because I hope that my writing is more broad-based and reaching. But I’m very aware that if people are reading fiction in 50 years, then we’ll be lucky. And I understand just how big of a deal this casino is—to the tribe and to the community.”

Driving up to the top of Sonoma Mountain, you can see the entire swath of Marin and Sonoma counties in the turn of a head: khaki foothills dotted with century-old oak stands, undulating rows of vineyard, a red-tailed hawk bent against a flagrantly blue sky. Jack London, a man who spent his life crossing the globe in search of wildness and grandeur, established his Beauty Ranch on this mountain. He said of it, “Next to my wife, this ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” Sarris’s $1.5 million house is up here somewhere.

It’s easy to transpose a historical map onto this vista. It was once Miwok-Pomo land. To the south you can see the mudflats of San Pablo Bay, where the Indians fished and dug for clams. Farther north is the coastal range of the Kashaya Pomo, where Robert F. Kennedy once visited and, according to tribal lore, a medicine woman predicted his assassination. Sarris told me that before the Spanish and their invasive species arrived, these hills were green year-round. Imagine that: emerald hills, even in summer—it’d be like Ireland. That’s the past, though, and these days we live only for tomorrow. Soon, just west of Rohnert Park, on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands, a new chapter in the county’s history will open. The future, like it or not, is slots, politics, taxes, and land at $1 million an acre. What will all this prosperity bring? Perhaps only the coyotes know.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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