In Los Angeles, people never ask you how you are, they ask you what you do. I would always say I’m a novelist, a screenwriter, a professor, and an Indian chief. What are you?
Greg Sarris is one of those rare larger than life characters that the most fortunate among us encounter once in a great while during our lifetime. He is indeed a novelist having written several books, notable among them the critically acclaimed Watermelon Nights and the award-winning Grand Avenue, which ultimately inspired an HBO miniseries of the same name that was co-produced by Robert Redford. He is also a screenwriter having written pilots for HBO and Showtime in addition to the script for the aforementioned adaptation of his celebrated novel. And he is, in truth, a scholar and professor as well, having earned a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, worked as a full professor of English at UCLA, and graced the Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair in Writing and Native American Studies at Sonoma State University since 2005.
For most people, that would be enough to fill a lifetime. But Greg Sarris’ life has had many acts, the most current of which may ultimately be the one to indelibly define his legacy. Now in his thirteenth elected term as the Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Sarris oversees the Graton Resort and Casino (www.gratonresortcasino.com), a staggering complex in Sonoma County, California, which includes gaming, multiple restaurants, meeting and conventions spaces, a luxurious spa and a chic new 200-room hotel. Wildly successful from the moment its doors were opened in 2013, the tribe’s nearly $1 billion gaming facility and hotel has been shepherded by Sarris since the tribe officially regained recognition thanks to a bill that was not coincidentally co-authored by Sarris and signed by Bill Clinton in the final days of his presidency.
Not bad for a kid of whom little was expected when he was growing up. In fact, one might even say that Sarris has come full circle over the course of his extraordinary and accomplished life. “I was just really going nowhere fast,” says the writer turned Indian Chief of an early childhood marked by the fact that he was born out of wedlock to a white mother and American Indian/Mexican father and later adopted by a white family in Santa Rosa, California at a time when race relations in America were tense to say the least. “I was the bad kid…the mixed-up kid…I started hanging out in the streets with a lot of Latino kids, American Indian kids, Black kids [and a] couple of poor whites. We were in trouble, not likely to succeed, and had somehow internalized that. We were doing all the things kids do: smoking dope, sniffing glue, drinking, all that. There weren’t guns [but] they were informal gangs.”
Surprisingly it was not a mentor or an inspirational book that changed the direction of Greg’s life, but instead an inanimate object. “I got a car,” Greg remembers with a laugh. “And as you know, cars don’t run on hallelujahs alone.” “I had to have gas and insurance and that kind of stuff [for] this old three-speed Ford, so I got a job as a bus boy, and I had to work split shifts,” he continues. “I think I worked five or six days a week during the summer to support that car. What that did was, it took me out of the gangs and away from my friends. It allowed me some distance and it allowed me to see my friends’ parents working as dishwashers or banquet waitresses in the same restaurant. It became very clear to me that, unless I changed my act, this was the end of the road for me.” Changing his act, meant studying for the first time, reading his first book (The Old Man and the Sea), taking remedial classes, and clawing his way, first into UCLA, and later into Stanford where he earned two master’s degrees and the PhD that laid the foundation for his next life phase as a scholar. Ironically, as Sarris settled into his career as a professor at UCLA and began to make a name for himself in Hollywood, he also discovered his real family and his Native American ancestry. Little did he know that many of the Native American kids with whom he had hung out with ‘in the streets’ during his youth were his cousins, that he would be the one to lead the charge to have his tribe reinstated after its illegal termination in 1958, or that he would thereafter be the driving force behind the tribe’s rise to prominence in the gaming community and beyond.
Walking around the Graton Resort and Casino with Sarris today, his pride in this accomplishment is almost palpable. He speaks to every one of the casino’s more than 2,000 employees by name, often asking about their families or sharing some tiny intimacy. He glows with pride when showing off the employees’ dining room where hot meals are served free to casino employees around the clock. He delights in explaining how he insisted that every employee at the casino have a premium health care plan paid for by the casino. And he glories in pointing out the minute details on the property ranging from the chandeliers on the gaming floor and in the restaurants, to the sexy, sophisticated décor of the hotel rooms which he helped conceive.
For Sarris, everything about the casino is personal and he doesn’t take his role lightly. Nor should he. Looking at it all now, it would be easy to forget the more than 8-year odyssey Sarris spearheaded to have the tribe recognized, the countless meetings with gaming organizations, the securing of the largest amount of funding for an Indian casino in history, the years of construction, or the endless fights with local authorities and political institutions that led to this moment. However, for Sarris the memories are ever present.
“Somebody said to me, ‘What’s the difference between then, during the struggle, and now?’” Sarris recalls. “I said, ‘I had so much hate against me and all that sort of stuff, and people being mean to me in public, and saying things, and writing things. I was sad and frightened a lot of the time. Now, I actually have security constantly drive me, everybody is coming to me wanting something…[and] I’m in a position to do good and keep doing good things.”
With that in mind, Sarris, who is openly gay, is, in fact, using his newfound power to do good, particularly on behalf of the LGBTQ community and the casino’s employees. When asked about how being gay factors into his role and the way he carries it out, Sarris is characteristically candid. “People are nice and respectful because I’m in a position of power,” he says. “One of the [notable] Gregisms, if you will, is that there’s nothing wrong with money and power. It’s what you do with it. What I [choose to] do with that position of power is ensure that everybody in my purview in that casino, feels safe, and that everybody knows that anybody who has any prejudices, if they have them and they act on the, they will get fired if they’re a team member, and they’ll get trespassed if they’re a guest. You want to be around me, you take the high road, and you respect all human life, or get out. That’s what power can do.”
“I am so proud that in this casino, the only thing we don’t tolerate is intolerance, and that it is the most diverse place perhaps in the whole Bay Area,” he adds earnestly. “Antithetical to the notion of a Vegas casino where you only have girls with big breasts, I am proud to tell you that we have women that are transgender serving drinks right alongside everybody else, and men in tight clothes bartending. We have 11 transgender people that I know of working for us, and I couldn’t be more proud.” As are we all.
With one very powerful hand, Sarris redefines conventional notions of what it means to be an Indian Chief, as well as what it means to run one of the most successful Indian casinos in America. With plans already underway to continue to expand the hotel and casino, Sarris’ influence will likely only continue to grow in the coming years, making him ever more powerful in the world of gaming, as well as in the community he calls home. And that is a good thing. Because while his vision and his life story bring something fresh and vital to the California Wine Country, they are also paving the path to unprecedented opportunity for a tribe that had once lost its way and found itself again, giving renewed credence to the old maxim: it’s not how you start that matters, it’s how you finish.