Greg Sarris is a trade writer who created a little cosmos, a fictional tribe of American Indians who live in Sonoma County, California.
This tribe is Waterplace Pomo, and we could be forgiven for thinking of them as the fictional analogue of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the California tribe Sarris worked for to gain federally recognized status.
Sarris is tribal chairman of the tribe, owner of the Graton Resort & Casino near Rohnert Park, California. He handles the business affairs of the casino, which could be a more lucrative occupation than teaching classes at Sonoma State University, where he holds the Federated Indians. of Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair of Native American Studies, or write books.
He is a controversial figure as opponents of the casino have challenged his claim to Native American heritage.
Sarris’ single mother, 17 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 could not have of biological children. Shortly after adopting him, they conceived and eventually had three biological children. Sarris often found himself at odds with his abusive and alcoholic father.
To keep the peace, Sarris lived with several foster families. At the age of 12, he met Mabel McKay, a Pomo weaver, who taught him the ways and customs of the Pomos. (Sarris would publish, in 1994, “Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream”, a loving biography of her mentor.)
Although no father was named on his birth certificate, Sarris says that when he was at Stanford University he found out his biological father was of Filipino, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo descent. He began working 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 published two highly acclaimed short story collections, 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 writes non-fiction – he often appears on television to talk about Native American affairs. Obviously, he is very accomplished. And, judging by his website, he’s media savvy and alert to opportunities to grow 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 just have to read a bit of the book. The boring ones usually kick in early.)
And Greg Sarris is a fine superintendent of the world he has created, a world that is both plausible and exotic, tragic and affirming. “Watermelon Nights,” republished by University of Oklahoma Press with a new foreword by the author and an afterword by researcher Reginal Dyck, is an ambitious intergenerational work set in Santa Rosa, a small town on the California coast where the Waterplace Pomo settled after being driven from its traditional lands by Mexican raiders in the 19th century.
Today, in the 1990s, the white population of Santa Rosa reluctantly accepts the presence of the Pomos, who – like the American Indians of Bunker Hill in Kent McKenzie’s 1961 film “The Exiles” – are gradually losing touch with their indigenous traditions. Only Elba, an elder of the tribe, and a few of the other elders still speak the tribal language.
As Elba works to preserve those ties, her 17-year-old grandson, Johnny Severe, gets involved in the campaign to gain federal tribal recognition for the Pomo so they can get federal aid and possibly restitution. of their land. To do this, he must establish the tribe’s genealogy, a quasi-biblical endeavor of researching who fathered whom. And there are lots of birth certificates with blanks where the father’s name should be.
“I filled in the blanks on my board,” Johnny says, “going back from me, mom and grandma to the first Rosa, which is what everyone was supposed to do to prove we were a tribe. “
Iris, Johnny’s mother and Elba’s daughter, is estranged from her family and this effort. She sees that the only way forward is assimilation into white culture. More than anything, she identifies as American, or wants to.
Elba points out that nothing is as clean as a chart might suggest; there are also other tribes involved. Rosa, the town’s founder, was raped by a Mexican general and gave birth to a daughter also named Rosa who married a Native American from another tribe to rebuild her own tribe. Everyone is related to everyone, and there are dozens of castes and categories – uncles and Filipinos, witches and Catholics. Some of Rosa’s descendants identify as “Spanish or Mexican”.
Santa Rosa is a sordid place, where violence (or its threat) is never far away. When we first meet Johnny, he has a hole in his face – he was punched in the head by gay men. His mother was the child of a gang rape. American Indians are bitter and beaten.
“The Indians are a nasty, unhappy bunch,” Johnny tells us. “Indians are like weeds.”
Sarris’ novel reads like nothing more than wild fiction – a good point of comparison might be Tommy Orange’s 2018 novel ‘There, There’, which, come to think of it, might have been partly inspired by “Watermelon Nights”. In any case, it’s a gritty and powerful book that deserves to be rediscovered.