ON BOOKS: Indigenous novel merits rediscovery

Greg Sarris is a focused writer who has created a small cosmos, a fictional disestablished tribe of American Indians who live in Sonoma County, Calif.

That tribe is the Waterplace Pomo, and we might be forgiven for thinking them the fictional analog to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the California tribe for which Sarris worked to gain federally recognized status.

Sarris serves as tribal chairman of the tribe, which owns the Graton Resort & Casino near Rohnert Park, Calif. He handles the casino’s business affairs, which might be a more lucrative occupation than teaching classes at Sonoma State University, where he the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair of Native American Studies, or writing books.

He’s a controversial figure in that opponents of the casino have disputed his claim to American Indian heritage.

Sarris’ unwed mother, a 17-year-old of German, Jewish and Irish descent, died shortly after giving birth to him, and he was adopted by a middle-class white couple who thought they were unable to have biological children. Shortly after they adopted him, they conceived, and eventually had three biological children. Sarris often found himself at odds with his abusive, alcoholic father.

To keep the peace, Sarris lived with several foster families. When he was 12 years old he met Pomo basket weaver Mabel McKay, who taught him the Pomos’ ways and customs. (Sarris would, in 1994, publish “Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream,” a loving biography of his mentor.)

While no father was named on his birth certificate, Sarris says when he was in graduate school at Stanford he discovered his biological father was of Filipino, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo descent. He began to work with members of the Miwok and Pomo tribes to regain federal recognition and embraced his identity as an American Indian.

“Watermelon Nights,” first published in 1998, is to date the only novel he has written; he has published two highly regarded collections of short stories, 1994’s “Grand Avenue” (which became an HBO miniseries in 1996) and 2017’s “How a Mountain Was Made.”

He has also worked in theater and film and written nonfiction articles — he often appears on TV talking about American Indian affairs. Obviously he’s highly accomplished. And, judging from his website, he is media savvy and alert to opportunities to increase his brand and promote his causes.

So, he’s a political activist, a businessman, an academic, a screenwriter and playwright, a television personality. And openly gay.

I expected Sarris’ personal story to be more interesting than his writing.

But that’s why you read the book. (Well, often, you only have to read a little bit of the book. The dull ones usually announce themselves early.)

And Greg Sarris is a fine superintendent of the world he has created, a world that’s both plausible and exotic, tragic and affirming. “Watermelon Nights,” re-issued by the University of Oklahoma Press with a new preface by the author and an afterword by scholar Reginal Dyck, is an ambitious, inter-generational work set in Santa Rosa, a small town on the California coast where the Waterplace Pomo settled after being forced off their traditional lands by Mexican raiders in the 19th century.

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