Hail to the Chief
Greg Sarris is one of those California creations: Part Filipino, part German Jewish and part Coast Miwok Indian, he's a bowl of soup in the melting pot of America. And if you think Sarris might, as a result, be a complex guy, you're right. A Stanford-trained writer of fiction who now teaches his trade at UCLA, Sarris is also serving his fourth elected term as Miwok tribal chief, a serious duty that's prompted him to co-author a congressional bill calling for the restoration of reservation lands. In his writer role, he'll be in Boulder this week to sign Watermelon Nights, a new novel that eloquently depicts the hard side of modern California-coast Indian life while attempting to bridge the culture gap.
"If you go to the common notion that race and culture mean one specific thing, you'll be in trouble with me," Sarris says of his writerly tightrope walk, acknowledging that issues of contemporary Indian identity go far deeper than the typical red-and-white concerns. He's often mentioned in the same breath as fellow American Indian author Sherman Alexie, who's made literary headlines for having bitter, separatist views. Sarris says he likes Alexie but disagrees with him politically. "He's problematic," Sarris says. "Alexie champions Indians without saying why--he's reconstituting the old Sixties polemics. He's not looking at the way we're interacting now in multiple cultures.
"We still get caught into notions, the idea that identity, like culture, is static rather than something fluid," Sarris adds. "The only way to deal with that is to let those borders mix and cross over. I try to look at ways in which we become victims and victimize others. A willingness to stop that is the only thing that will heal us."
Sarris's own jumbled background has been a formative tool in his quest to write honestly about ordinary people trapped by their environment. Of his own story, he says simply, "It's a mess. But messes can be good. Messes show what we don't always want to show--the truth." And sometimes that gets him in trouble: "The Indians say to me, 'Greg, you hang out all our laundry to see.'" But for Sarris, it's a positive move. "That's what I want to do--give a sense of who we are, a mirror that will reflect us as a complicated people. I wanted to show not 'Hey, guess what, we're Indians,' but to show people who happen to be Indians.
"As tired as I get, I feel blessed and happy that these voices come, that I'm able to speak for my ancestors on all sides," Sarris says, and he does so not just with words but also with actions, a fact that's gained him enduring support and respect from fellow Miwoks--even those whose views follow the harder line.
"It was just like everything else I do. I opened my big mouth, and that was it," Sarris says of his initial involvement in tribal politics. Though he describes the job of tribal chief as something akin to being the squabble-settling mayor of a small town, he also recognizes its flip side: the important business of helping a forgotten people find a viable identity. Sarris remembers hearing a California park ranger explain to a crowd how the Coast Miwoks had disappeared. "And we'd be standing there in the group, listening," he recalls. But in a way, it's true: The Miwoks endured an onslaught of Catholic missionaries, slavery, rampant intermarriage and, finally, a loss of federal recognition fifty years ago that signaled--at least to the government--the tribe's demise.
But Sarris, mixed as he may be, is testament to the fact that the Miwoks and their coastal neighbors the Pomos live on, doing their best to preserve age-old cultures while interacting, California-style, with the population at large. Should his proposed bill be passed, the Miwoks would be restored as a federally acknowledged tribe. "That means we will have a land base, federal housing, educational benefits and, most importantly, access to Indian health care," he says. For the roughly 2,000 Miwoks at large in northern California, it would provide far more than a new-found source of ethnic pride.
In the meantime, Sarris has more than enough work to keep him busy. His short-story collection Grand Avenue has already been turned, with support from Robert Redford, into an HBO mini-series, and current projects include another HBO foray, Casino, a screenplay and the book for a Broadway musical about American Indians commissioned by Rent producer Jeffrey Seller. Of that endeavor, Sarris says: "It'll blow your expectations of what it should be like. There will be no Indians in buckskins dancing around a fire. It's very urban. Instead, the women are walking around with those big headdresses like Erykah Badu."
In addition, Sarris continues to teach, driven by a desire to help young writers find unique and personal avenues of expression. "I tell my students to develop what voices they hear, not what someone else thinks they should hear," he says, adding that his own style is driven by voice and the inner psychology of his characters. In particular, his women, such as Elba from Watermelon Nights, a grandmother whose life has been riddled with inhumane treatment, come through as consummate, believable portraits. But that, he says, is more a product of his seminal environment--a culture held together by strong females--than pure pedantic intent. "Any good writer who hears voices wants to get a sense of the human being projected by that voice," Sarris stresses. "You have to taste the cake before you can make presumptions.
"I pick a character based on the voice I'm hearing, not on its genitalia," he continues. "Then I ask myself, 'Is the character that I created a complicated, fully realized woman?' If the answer is yes, I've done my job."
Greg Sarris signs Watermelon Nights, 7:30 p.m. October 15, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-447-2074.
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