For years, questions have swirled around whether the leader of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria had Native American heritage.
Now a relative has stepped forward to challenge the claims, saying there is no one in her family who is Native American and that the story Chairman Greg Sarris, a well-known writer and academic, is telling is pure fiction.
“I’m not Indian and neither is he,” said Velia Navarro, a 68-year-old Los Angeles County resident and Sarris’s second cousin. “He’s a manipulator, he’s self-centered and he does things for his own benefit.”
Navarro first met Sarris in the late 1980s when he contacted the family saying he was the illegitimate son of Navarro’s cousin. She describes her family’s ancestry as a mix of Filipino, Spanish and French and said that she grew concerned after hearing Sarris’s stories about the family, many of which she says are wrong.
“How does a person have the audacity to do something like that? He is a writer and what he is saying is pure fiction…If I thought I had Indian in me, I would like to be part of a tribe building a casino because I know I’m going to get a piece of the pie.”
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are in the process of building a 3,000-slot casino west of Rohnert Park, prompting concerns about overdrawing the region’s water, impacts on traffic and other quality of life issues, including gambling addiction and crime.
A call on Tuesday to the tribe seeking a comment from Sarris not immediately returned. But in a 2009 letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the tribe’s Vice-Chair Lorelle Ross, called a similar allegation, made by the Stop the Casino 101 community group, “deeply offensive” to both the tribe and all Native people.
“For too long, our Native people have struggled with our own identifies, as those in the dominant society have tried to deny or delegitimize the American Indian identity, experience and history,” Ross wrote, adding that the 1,300-tribe had the exclusive right to determine its own membership.
She went on to say that Sarris was democratically elected by the tribe and had served as chairman for two decades. She also said the tribe kept its own records used to determine membership. The tribe has previously said that 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.
Sarris, who turned 60 this year, is an accomplished writer and academic who has taught writing and literature Loyola Marymount University and UCLA and authored numerous books including "Watermelon Nights" and a collection of short stories.
In 2005, he became the endowed chair of the Native American Studies program at Sonoma State University, a position paid for by the tribe. In recounting his lineage, Sarris has said that his paternal great-grandmother was the daughter of famous Pomo Indian medicine man Tom Smith of Sonoma County and a Native American woman named Emily Stewart of Marin County who had both Pomo and Coast Miwok blood.
He has submitted a genealogical chart to the federal government with this information as proof that he was a Native American of Coast Miwok and Pomo blood. He also offered to take a blood test in 2010, but said such a move would first have to be approved by the tribe.
Descendents of both the Miwok and Pomo people make up members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which became federally recognized in 2002.
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