An indigenous activist at Stanford University is alleging that Greg Sarris, the controversial Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is attempting to improperly influence state and federal elected officials, including State Senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat of Napa Valley and the Chairman of the powerful Government Organization Committee.
Earlier this year, at Sarris’ urging, Dodd refused to allow a vote in committee on SJR-13, a resolution endorsing the federal government’s recognition of the Tribe. Dodd effectively killed the bill in his Senate Committee.
Dodd represents the district where the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria own the Graton Casino & Resort, near Santa Rosa. The Tribe received federal recognition in 2000 and ever since has been spending heavily to influence state and federal elected officials to prevent other Indian Tribes from opening casinos. Sarris has served as the Tribe’s chairman since 1992.
Sarris is so close to Dodd that, in June of this year, Dodd immediately pulled his own legislation to legalize sports betting in California after being personally lobbied by Sarris.
Now, Sarris is alleged to be rounding up political contributions from a slew of other Indian gaming Tribes across California, and has been directing them to “throw money” at Senator Cortese, who represents the ancestral territory of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation, a Tribe of some 500 people who have lived in the San Francisco Bay region for millennia.
Cortese is widely seen as a vocal and courageous ally of the Tribe, who has committed to helping the Muwekma people fight for federal recognition.
“Senator Cortese has the highest standard of personal ethics and deep commitment to social justice for indigenous communities. He would never allow casino Tribes’ contributions to influence his opinion of what is right,” explains the activist, who is an organizer of a student organization called Justice for Muwekma, but asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Tribe. “We have enormous respect for Senator Cortese’s integrity, and hope to see him in public service for a very long time.”
“He is a friend to the Muwekma, and we know he will do right by them,” he adds.
Sarris has been a brutal, deep-pocketed, and dastardly opponent of recognizing California’s poorest, most marginalized, most landless Indians whom — like the Muwekma — often have stronger Tribal political institutions, more vibrant cultural communities, and stronger genetic lineages than the Tribe that he petitioned the Congress to create in 2000.
“For decades the gaming Tribes have been lobbying elected officials and the State and federal level and essentially bribing them to deny the existence and peoplehood of the Muwekma Nation,” the activist argues. “For politicians to reduce the issue of a peoples’ existence into a racist trope about Indian casinos is deeply offensive.”
“That some elected officials are so transactional about genocide is outrageous,” he adds.
Just this year — while Senator Cortese has been courageously advocating for Muwekma recognition — several Tribes have already donated to his 2024 election fund, and political observers say that their intention is clear: Greg Sarris is cajoling the wealthiest casinos to improperly influence Senator Cortese, hoping that he will turn on the Muwekma people and help him oppose the Muwekma’s longstanding bid for federal recognition.
“Senator Cortese has too much integrity for Greg Sarris’ plan to work,” the activist explains.
|PECHANGA BAND OF LUISENO INDIANS||3/29/22||$2,500.00|
|YOCHA DEHE WINTUN NATION||5/20/22||$3,000.00|
|SHINGLE SPRINGS BAND MIWOK INDIANS||5/27/22||$3,000.00|
|BARONA BAND OF MISSION INDIANS||8/24/21||$3,000.00|
|YOCHA DEHE WINTUN NATION||9/28/21||$3,000.00|
|SHINGLE SPRINGS BAND MIWOK INDIANS||11/5/21||$1,000.00|
|PECHANGA BAND OF LUISENO INDIANS||12/14/21||$2,400.00|
|SANTA YNEZ BAND OF MISSION INDIANS||1/17/21||$2,000.00|
|PECHANGA BAND OF LUISENO INDIANS||6/24/21||$2,500.00|
Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris has long been suspected of identity fraud
Sarris, a professor and novelist, has been the face of the Graton Rancheria since the tribe was restored by an act of Congress a decade ago and has been the point man on all things related to the tribe’s casino ever since. But one of his staunchest adversaries, who has spent several years researching U.S. Census and geological records, claims Sarris doesn’t have a trace of Indian heritage.
Marilee Montgomery has long disputed Sarris’s claim to have Pomo and Miwok blood.
“Mr. Sarris possesses no Native American blood, and specifically, no Coast Miwok and/or Southern Pomo blood, and thus is not qualified to be a member of the (FIGR) Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria,” Montgomery wrote in a letter to federal and state officials.
She has asked the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees Indian tribes, to review the information she discovered “and if applicable, de-certify” Sarris as tribal chairman.
In 2010, Sarris offered to take a blood test to prove his Indian heritage, but weeks later said that the tribe would have to approve such a step. Apparently, that approval was not forthcoming.
Sarris, now 70, grew up in Santa Rosa’s desirable Proctor Terrace neighborhood, was adopted at birth and says he didn’t find out he was Indian until he was in his early thirties.
His unwed, 16-year-old Jewish mother died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, less than two weeks after he was born. Only years later, through his own research, Sarris said, did he discover that his father was part-Filipino, part-Indian descended from Native Americans who inhabited Marin and Sonoma counties.
Montgomery said it is impossible not to sympathize with the circumstances of Sarris’ life. But she said her own research of Census, Social Security and other records reveals he is not the great-great grandson of Tom Smith of Coast/Miwok ancestry and Emily Stewart, a part Miwok and resident of Tomales, as a tribe genealogy describes.
Records dating back to 1870 and corroborated in subsequent population surveys show Sarris “is the great-great grandson of Joseph P. Stewart, a barber born in Pennsylvania and Emily B. Stewart, who was born in Maine,” she said.
But Montgomery said she is simply trying to get at the truth.
“Greg Sarris is a government official, leader of a sovereign nation. As a government official, he is subject to all kinds of scrutiny, this being one kind,” she said.
In addition to writing six books, one of which was adapted into an HBO movie produced by Robert Redford, Sarris is a professor of Indian studies at Sonoma State University. The chances that the Bureau of Indian Affairs will launch an investigation based on Montgomery’s letter alone appear remote because it usually takes complaints from tribal members to prompt action.
“The tribes determine their membership,” BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said at the time. She said the tribe also dictates membership requirements. But casino critics such as Cheryl Schmit of Stand up for California, said questions about the legitimacy of tribal members can lead to internal squabbles and turnover of leadership. She said some tribes have accepted non-Indians members, which she described as a serious problem and “a California phenomenon” since voters a decade ago approved Las-Vegas style gaming only on Indian lands.
Ensuring that tribal members are Indian, she said, is something to which citizens are entitled.
“It’s not racist, but it is racial, because the voters of California carved out an exception for Native Americans to have slot machines and gaming activity,” she said. But members of the Graton Rancheria who were interviewed this week said they have no doubt Sarris is part Indian and a bona fide tribal member.
Many Native Americans, including members of Sarris’ tribe, were skeptical of his lineage in 2003 when the tribe unveiled its proposed large casino resort in partnership with Station Casinos of Las Vegas. Her subsequent research, she said, documented how it is virtually impossible for Sarris to be an Indian through his father, Emilio Hilario, as he asserts. In particular, she said Census records show the maiden name of Reinette Sarrgossa, the maternal grandmother of Hilario, was Stewart, not Smith, and her parents were born on the East Coast.
She details her research along with copies of census records on her group’s website. But Sarris said written records are inconsistent and “don’t tell the whole story – that’s the bottom line.”
He said he relies in part on oral traditions within the tribe and photos that link him to Pomos and Miwoks. He noted other inconsistencies in public records that are not reflected in the research by his critic. On his father’s birth certificate, his mother is identified as “Mexican,” he said. And when his great grandmother, Reinette, died, he said her parents were listed as “unknown.”
Sarris said old public documents cannot be counted on when it comes to California Indians, who often concealed their heritage because of the prejudice and mistreatment they experienced.
“There were slavery laws until 1868 when Indians were indentured, bought and sold,” he said. “We weren’t citizens until 1924.”
But Montgomery said some Native Americans, interested in safeguarding tribal membership, have thanked her for researching Sarris’ roots.”I have real solid evidence. Maybe he does, too,” she said. “Oral tradition is nice, but documentation is better.”