When Greg Sarris was growing up in Santa Rosa, he encountered people—as well as other creatures—who would help inform the man he would become. These included Eileen, a tough Coast Miwok, Tommy Baca, a one-armed painter, and Mrs. Ianucci, the tarot-reading babysitter who may or may not have been canoodling with an old man who lived in a shack next door. Then there was the osprey, a water-loving raptor with much advice to offer if one was willing to be patient and listen.
Sarris also came to know Mabel McKay, the Cache Creek Pomo basket weaver. Through McKay’s mentorship, as well as friendships with other Pomo and Miwok people, Sarris found a connection to Native heritage and history, eventually becoming an author and a well-respected California tribal leader. In his memoir, Becoming Story: A Journey Among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors, Sarris tells the story of how that happened, interweaving his people’s millennial-long relationship with the lands, the waters, the animals and fish, and all the birds that glide through the air above.
Sarris spent his childhood as the adopted son of white parents. It was two decades before he learned of his Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tribal heritage. Although thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their homes by state and local governments and adopted by mostly white families throughout the 20th century, Sarris’s adoption was different. His mother was unmarried and handed her infant off after giving birth.
Even before Sarris realized he had a connection to the Indigenous peoples of the region, however, McKay took the young man under her wing and educated him on Native culture and beliefs.
Sarris attended UCLA and later Stanford, where he earned two master’s degrees and a PhD in modern thought and literature. During graduate school, he learned of his tribal heritage from his grandfather Emiliano Hilario. In the early 1990s, Sarris began working to restore the status of his tribe, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, as federally recognized. In 2000, a bill he coauthored was signed into law, and Sarris found himself assuming the chairmanship of the tribe. He is currently serving his 15th term.
Becoming Story moves from Sarris’s troubled childhood—his parents’ marriage collapsed owing, in part, to his father’s alcoholism—to the tales of his ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather Tom Smith, known as the last Coast Miwok medicine man, and Tsupu, the “last woman from Petaluma.” In the process, Sarris reveals how he became his own story.
In writing about the lands and waters that have sustained his people for millennia—what is referred to as “time immemorial”—Sarris shows how pre-contact Indigenous nations governed themselves and interacted with their neighbors in what are now Sonoma and Marin Counties; how the health of their people was tied to the health of the waters and lands; how their societal structures existed to ensure health and safety for their communities.
Whether Sarris is ruminating on the nature of story or writing an elegy to the live oak in his yard, his words act as brushstrokes, painting indelible images of his homeland.
The oak trees that once fed Sarris’s ancestors formed a remarkable ecosystem. They also witnessed the coming of the Spaniards, who insisted that Indigenous peoples adopt their religion, and imposed bans on burning and bathing in the missions. The oaks also observed the arrival of the Americans, who made—and broke—treaties, embarked on a 30-year-long genocidal campaign, established and repossessed tribal lands, and eventually terminated the status of more than 40 California tribes.
Like the invasive plant pathogen laying waste to live oaks, tan oaks, and black oaks, the effort to exterminate Native communities has been devastating: Sarris notes that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s 1,400 enrolled members descend from just 14 survivors of disease, starvation, massacre, and removal from their lands.
In response, Sarris recounts the hard-won knowledge of Coast Miwok, Pomo, and other Indigenous peoples. He also imagines a possible future in which at least some Native lands are restored to their pre-contact health and serve as models for what the world might learn from Indigenous peoples, if it’s not too late to put such lessons to use.•