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A Review of “Becoming Story”: Savoring Greg Sarris

Greg Sarris—the Sonoma State University professor, who is also the longtime chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria—has been spending so much time teaching and leading the tribe that he hasn’t had opportunities to write. And that’s a pity. His short stories published in Grand Avenue and his novel, Watermelon Nights show that he can really create powerful works of fiction when he puts his mind and his heart to the task. 

Sarris's new book, which sells for $25, has just been published by Heyday in Berkeley. It offers no new work. Pintsized and about 230-pages, it fits snugly into my back pocket. The nonfiction pieces have all been previously published in magazines, books and newspapers from 2005 to 2020. It would be satisfying to know what Sarris is thinking now, in 2022, about the Indian past, the Indian present and his own life. 

Over the years I’ve attended tribal events and listened to many of his stories, some of them about celebrities like Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. While I haven’t been certain whether they’re true or made-up, that may not be what Sarris is after, as Becoming Story, his new book suggests. American Indians don’t have what they once had before Europeans first arrived on the continent, gabbed as much land and as many resources as they could and pushed West—if they started on the eastern seaboard—or north if they began their journey in Mexico. Some Indians, Sarris explains, are lost in places that were once home. Still, Indians do have their stories, which as Sarris knows provide a sense of history, identity and connections to space and to time itself which was once measured by particular “places, seasons, trees, and ancestors,” the four things mentioned in the subtitle to this book.

Yes, it's too bad Sarris hasn’t written about the pandemic, the Trump presidency and events like Standing Rock where Indians and environmentalists gathered to protect water and the sacred against big oil. Still it’s helpful to have these 13 pieces gathered together and grouped in four major sections. The sections are further divided into chapters about animals, people, the author himself and more. 

So what does it all add to? Sarris clearly has deep feelings for northern California and he clearly wants to preserve the stories he’s heard, as well as stories he has created from the fragments of oral history told by elders. He doesn’t acknowledge his sources, and while he often provides useful information, he admits that he doesn’t have all the facts or all the parts of the stories. That seems to be good enough for him. He goes with what he has and asks lots of questions to which he often doesn't provide clear answers. But he also tells stories that have continuity and clarity. “The storied landscape,” he writes in the essay “Osprey Talks To Me One Day,” is a sacred text...reminding us not only of the world we find ourselves in but of how to live harmoniously with it.” More than any other “white” person I know he has transcended his “whiteness,” though he has also retained skills learned in the “white word” and plays a big part in the casino in Rohnert Park. 

I once heard Sarris speak at the Petaluma campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College. A member of the audience, who was a middle aged white man, asked Sarris how Indians felt and thought about a variety of issues. Sarris smiled and said he could only speak for himself and not for all Indians and not even for all the members of his whole tribe. No two Indians had the exact same ideas, he explained. That made sense to me. It still does. The more I learn about Indian tribes, the more I've come to appreciate their differences from one another. After all, they have lived in places as different as the desert, the plains, and the Pacific NorthWest. They all have different histories, though they have some things in common, including wars with one another and with Europeans and Americans. And they all have stories they've preserved. 

So how do Sarris' stories add up? Clearly, he has deep feelings for northern California people and places, for birds and lizards, and for the Indian past. Indeed, he seems to have a heightened sensitivity to landscapes, including the Russian River, the California coast, Sonoma Mountain where he lives and the area around Petaluma. He talks about the colonization by white settlers, but he doesn't demonize white settlers. In fact, he suggests that Mexicans often treated Indians with more brutality than the Yankees did. 

“The Mexicans,” he writes in “The Last Woman from Petaluma,” [a title that sounds like The Last of the Mohicans] established an elaborate slave trade buying and selling Native men and boys.” 

There's a lot about everyday Indian resistance to colonization, but he doesn't describe the dramatic occupation of Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s or the birth of the American Indian Movement. His tribe wasn't involved. In a way, Sarris is apolitical. Causes aren't his thing. He's at his best when he writes about Indian women, some of them basket makers. He acknowledges a man he calls his great-great-grandfather who was once called Tomas Comtechal and who became Tom Smith, but he doesn't explain how he traced the lineage and learned the genealogy, and curiously he doesn't mention his birth mother who was Jewish. He has told me stories about her. One wonders if he has consciously sanitized his own family history. Being Indian he once told me was a cultural matter that didn't have to do with race or ethnicity or one's DNA 

I mentioned to a friend who reviewed Becoming Story that I found it disappointing. Her retort: “he's done a lot for his tribe.” That's true. Also, I agreed with her that this book is worth reading. It's thought provoking, especially when Sarris writes about Sonoma Mountain and says that, “the place remembered me. Stories beckoned.” Sarris's ability to read landscapes and to describe his attachments to them is a wonderful gift that he shares. Becoming Story suggests that you don't have to be an Indian, a Miwok or a Pomo, to listen to and hear the stories that the trees, the rocks and the flowers tell. We have only to open our hearts and to be attuned to spirit. And perhaps it might help to let go of the stories told by settlers and their defenders, which aimed to justify invasion, occupation and colonization.

One Comment

  1. djakke raine May 25, 2022

    i have been listening to the book read on kwmr, i am enjoying, especially when he mentions areas near where i live, bodega bay, coleman valley road, freestone. hope you are doing well jonah, you are a rare voice, much appreciation

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